Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research

Affective disorders such as bipolar disorder, depression and other disorders of mood, are among the leading causes of disability worldwide. Their biological basis is still largely unknown, and there is an urgent need for better understanding on which future therapies can be based.

The Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research was established in 2007 to address this need. The center was founded through a $20M commitment from Patricia and James Poitras ‘63 to the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, to support research into the root causes of these conditions. The center supports research not only at the McGovern Institute but throughout MIT, including collaborative projects with other institutions such as the Broad Institute, McLean Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital and other clinical research centers.

In 2015, the McGovern Institute and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT launched a new monthly seminar series called the Stanley Center & Poitras Center Translational Neuroscience Joint Seminar Series. The talks feature researchers from universities and pharmaceutical companies who study the molecular basis of psychiatric disorders.

Research goals

In the years since the Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research was established at the McGovern Institute in 2007, research into psychiatric illness has surged ahead at an unprecedented pace. When Pat and Jim Poitras decided to make their landmark investment in MIT, the human genome, with its three billion ‘letters’ of DNA, had recently been sequenced, and new genomic technologies had made it possible to identify the genetic risk factors for major psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and autism.  It was clear that the next step would be to understand how these genes act within the brain.
The Poitras Center came together at MIT at just the right time to harness extraordinary possibilities in neuroscience. The invention of optogenetics, first reported in 2005, was allowing scientists to control and study the activity of neural circuits with a precision previously unimaginable. New imaging methods provide us with ever-more detailed pictures of brain activity, in humans and animal models.  Advances in microscopy are revolutionizing our view of the brain’s fine structure.  And new methods for genome editing will allow us to create animal models of neurogenetic disease faster and more precisely than ever before.
The Poitras Center has enabled numerous discoveries and technical advances, many of which have been published in top scientific journals as Nature, Science and Cell. As a result of these advances, the Center has leveraged millions of dollars in federal grants and private funding.  Poitras Center support has made possible national and international collaborations with renowned researchers and clinicians and provided a vital source of support for the next generation of neuroscientists and biological engineers. Quite simply, the Poitras Center has cemented the MIT’s position as one of the world’s leading institutions for psychiatric disorders research.
Highlights of discoveries made possible by the Poitras Center include:

Brain scans can predict the success of treatment for social anxiety disorder
For individuals with social anxiety disorder, current behavioral and pharmaceutical treatments work about half the time. Due to an absence of tools to guide treatment selection, individuals must invest weeks in therapy or try a variety of medications over months to find success—a time-consuming and expensive process. However new research out of the Gabrieli Lab shows that simple 15-minute MRI brain scans may be able to predict treatment outcomes more than five times better than clinician assessments. Such scans can detect with about 80 percent accuracy which social anxiety disorder patients will do well in cognitive behavioral therapy. The lab now plans a large-scale study on social anxiety disorder, studies to predict the success of more than one form of therapy, and investigations focused on predicting treatment success for other psychiatric conditions, such as depression and attention disorders. Learn more >>
New imaging technique detects calcium ions in neurons, helping to map how brain cells coordinate behavior

A team led by Guoping Feng developed a new way to monitor how brain cells coordinate with each other to control specific behaviors, such as initiating movement or detecting an odor. The new imaging technique, based on the detection of calcium ions in neurons, can help map the brain circuits responsible for specific behaviors, and may also provide new insights into the origins of autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other psychiatric diseases. Learn more >>

Dissecting neural circuitry mechanisms of social interaction deficits

Social interaction deficits are common in psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. The lab of Guoping Feng has hypothesized that defects in neuron-neuron communications in the ventral striatum (a critical brain region for processing emotion and reward) play a key role in social deficits. The lab has focused on Shank3, a gene important for building synapses for neuron-neuron communications, and found that mice with a deletion of the Shank3 gene exhibit profound social interaction deficits. Biochemical, morphological, and electrophysiological studies revealed significant defects in synapses in the striatum, leading to defective communication from the cortex to the striatum. This study provides direct evidence for a key role of synaptic defects in social interaction deficits, and establishes an excellent animal model for further dissecting neural mechanism underlying abnormal social behavior. Learn more >> 

  Image: Qian Chen, Guoping Feng