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First Base: The Century of the Mind

By Kevin Davies

Dec 2005 / Jan 2006 | Some 30 months ago, Bio•IT World ran a small picture story to mark the groundbreaking ceremony for a new research institute in Cambridge, Mass. One particularly astute reader noticed that we had accidentally published the wrong photograph. Much to our chagrin, that person was not only the institute benefactor, one Patrick J. McGovern, but also the founder and chairman of International Data Group (IDG), Bio•IT World’s parent company, whose name just happens to grace the executive masthead of this magazine.

Last month, McGovern saw his dream become reality, as MIT officially opened the spectacular McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Named in honor of McGovern and his wife, Lore Harp McGovern, the institute is housed in a marvelous building designed by architect Charles Correa, ensuring in McGovern’s words, “maximum collaboration and line-of-sight communication.” The Portuguese marble that reflects a shifting palette of color as sunlight streams through the skylight is a particularly neat touch.

Addressing an audience of hundreds in the institute atrium and “tens of thousands of people watching in China in prime time” via a live Webcast, McGovern recounted his early fascination with the brain and information processing. After assembling a computer that played “an unbeatable game of tic-tac-toe,” McGovern won a scholarship to MIT. Realizing that the task of studying or modeling the 3 billion neurons and 3 trillion connections, or synapses, in the human brain was beyond the available tools, McGovern built the next best thing — an international information technology publishing company, IDG.

In their extensive travels around the world, the McGoverns noted how similar human nature is from country to country — their humor, national pride, generosity, and so on. And yet people of all nationalities “are suspicious of people across geographic and political boundaries.” Thus, the prime goal of the McGovern Institute is to resolve conflict and improve communication and understanding that could lead to “a more peaceful, harmonious world.”

McGovern sees two other principal goals for his institute. One is to understand how the brain processes information to improve education and learning. The other is the study of mental illness and brain disease. This is the largest cause of disability in the United States — a staggering $500 billion each year. Director Robert Desimone noted that mental illness affects 450 million people.

Collaboration and Communication
Desimone said the Institute would be a center of “systems neuroscience,” a “molecules-to-mind research focus” that will concentrate on three broad areas: perception, cognition, and action. In total, more than 500 staff will be housed here (the Institute shares the premises with the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences), making it the largest neuroscience center in the world.

It was appropriate that the opening of an institute with such ambitious goals be marked by a dynamic group of speakers. Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe likened the Internet to the brain because of its massive complexity and layering. “I have two teenagers, there’s something going on in their brains I desperately need to understand,” Metcalfe quipped.

Jane Pauley, the NBC News TV personality, poignantly discussed her “belated brush with bipolar.” Pauley is taking lithium to manage bipolar disorder III, which was diagnosed in 2001. “Until I joined the club, I didn’t know it was so big,” said Pauley.

Senator John Kerry warned that science itself is under attack, condemning the “short-sighted period of American experience, in which support for science is withheld, and facts are ignored, skewed, and distorted.” He cited “funding priorities, the casual dismissal of evidence-based research...federal boards being staffed by partisans, constant political interference, and ideological intervention of stem cell research.”

“It is long since time to make America a reality-based community again,” Kerry said to warm applause. “The consequences for our national security and economic prosperity will be profound and lasting.”

In one telling aside, Kerry said that he wished the presidential election could be held now, rather than one year ago. But this is no time to dwell in the past, but rather focus on the wealth of advances in cognition, memory, and mental health that are poised to emerge. As the brilliant Columbia University professor and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel said, “The next century will be for the biology of the mind what the last century was for the biology of the gene.”

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