Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research

Psychiatric 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 Psychiatric 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 2003, the Poitras Family established the James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Poitras Professor of Neuroscience in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, currently held by Guoping Feng. In 2017, the Poitras Family established a second endowed chair, the James and Patricia Poitras (1963) Professorship in Neuroscience, and appointed CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang its inaugural chairholder.

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 Psychiatric 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.
Recent discoveries made possible by the Poitras Center include:

Diagnosing depression before it starts
January 21, 2016
A new brain imaging study from MIT and Harvard Medical School may lead to a screen that could identify children at high risk of developing depression later in life.

How a single gene contributes to autism and schizophrenia
December 10, 2015
Although it is known that psychiatric disorders have a strong genetic component, untangling the web of genes contributing to each disease is a daunting task. MIT neuroscientists have now shed some light on how a single gene can play a role in more than one disease.

New system for genome editing
September 25, 2015
A team including the scientist who first harnessed the CRISPR-Cas9 system for mammalian genome editing has now identified a different CRISPR system with the potential for even simpler and more precise genome engineering.

  Image: Qian Chen, Guoping Feng