Tackling the Complexity of the Social Brain

Neuropsychiatric disorders like autism are so complex that advances in understanding and therapeutics will likely require creative work from a large community of scientists. The integration of scientific efforts across many disciplines, from genes to cellular molecules to neurons to neural networks, is needed.

Mriganka Sur, director of Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT, making a presentation in December 2011.

In January the Simons Foundation created the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT to facilitate this synthesis. The center will partner with the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) to try to uncover the neural mechanisms that underlie social cognition.

MIT is well positioned to tackle this enormous challenge, said the center’s director, Mriganka Sur. While many universities have separate departments dedicated to neuroscience and to cognitive science and psychology, at MIT these fields have historically been seen as inextricably intertwined, and together they constitute a single department of brain and cognitive sciences.

What’s more, MIT’s strength in theory and computation will be essential for developing mathematical models of social cognition, neural networks, and gene, protein and signaling networks in neurons, Sur says. The university is also famous for its expertise in a host of technological areas that can be brought to bear on the study of autism, to enable the creation of tools such as wireless sensors to collect behavioral and physiological data from individuals; pattern-recognition algorithms that can be used to develop objective criteria for diagnosing autism; and microfabrication techniques for high-throughput drug screening, to name just a few examples.

“There are all kinds of ways in which tools and technologies will be transformative in studying diseases such as autism,” Sur said.

The establishment of the center follows on the heels of an earlier program called the Simons Initiative on Autism and the Brain, which ran at MIT from 2009 through the end of 2011. That program, which provided funding from the Simons Foundation for neuroscience projects and postdoctoral fellows, made it clear that in order to study the ‘social brain,’ it is necessary to focus not just on genomics and neuroscience but also on theoretical tools and on technologies such as stem cell engineering and brain imaging. This realization paved the way for the new, larger center, which expands the social-brain initiative to encompass the entire MIT community of scientists and engineers.

“By engaging researchers from diverse disciplines across MIT, the Simons Center for the Social Brain will greatly accelerate the pace of autism research,” said Marian Carlson, deputy director of life sciences at the Simons Foundation.

The center launched in early 2012 with three overarching goals. One is to build infrastructure for autism research by developing four major areas of research: genetics and gene discovery; mechanisms for how genes shape brain development and function; cognitive neuroscience; and translation of the latest research into effective treatments. The center will support these efforts through seed funds for investigators, a postdoctoral fellows program, support for graduate and undergraduate researchers, a colloquium series, and shared equipment. It will also create a ‘technology innovation hub’ comprising three laboratories dedicated to developing stem cell assay techniques, infant brain imaging technology and technologies for studying mouse models of autism.

A second goal is to use this infrastructure to carry out specific multilevel projects that represent “grand but solvable” challenges in the field of autism research, Sur said. One example of such a project, he said, could be to take some particular mutation that has been implicated in autism and then analyze its genetics to find the range of variation in the gene, create mouse models that capture the range of human variations, make human neurons with the mutations, study patients with different forms of the mutation, and develop therapeutics using the biomarkers the studies identify. “We’re deciding on targeted projects like this, projects that would use a full range of technologies and approaches to drill down on one subset of autism in a way that is both deep and effective,” Sur said, adding that the center’s steering committee is currently examining how to choose problems for which “we could have significant traction.”

The center’s third aim is to develop high-risk, potentially high-payoff approaches to the analysis and treatment of autism. Some of the center’s first seed grants, Sur said, have gone to researchers who plan to study cortico-basal ganglia circuitry that controls social attachment in monkeys; to develop and test a computational model that infers how a person would act in a particular situation, given the person’s beliefs and desires; and to use a chemical genetic screening approach to activating a silent gene involved in an autism disorder known as Rett syndrome.

The center launched its activities with a workshop in February that nearly a hundred MIT faculty members and students from a wide range of disciplines attended. The workshop aimed to inform scientists about the state of the art in autism research, and to generate excitement about the project among scientists outside the autism research community who could bring creative new ideas to the field. “The room was full, which was very encouraging,” Sur said.

The center runs a Boston-area colloquium series that meets every other week, as well as a monthly lunch lecture series for MIT researchers and a weekly coffee hour. “Building community is crucial to our mission,” Sur said.

The center plans to offer seed grants and postdoctoral fellowships twice each year. The first round of the process, completed this spring, produced several robust proposals, Sur said, and the awards went to scientists, engineers, mathematicians and social scientists.

Grant proposals require two co-investigators who plan to work collaboratively. One of these two investigators may be from outside MIT, to build bridges with researchers at Boston’s rich array of universities, research hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

The center will work closely with SFARI to plan and carry out its programs. Sur called it a “next-generation” model of partnership between universities, foundations and industry to study the science of brain disorders. “The center involves all of MIT and a deep commitment from the Simons Foundation,” he said. “It is a visionary and unique partnership.”