Entry Date:
October 23, 2007

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 James W and Patricia T 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.

The major focus of the Poitras Center is on bipolar and depression, but it also supports work on other serious psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington’s disease that include a major component of mood alteration. The focus includes both human and animal studies, but in all cases the priority is to support fundamental work that will advance understanding of the underlying biology of these conditions.

The establishment of the center was the culmination of a longstanding commitment by the Poitras family to MIT, including the establishment of the Poitras Professorship for Neuroscience.


After 2 ½ years, the Poitras Center has supported more than seven projects, enabled the recruitment of a new McGovern faculty member with expertise in psychiatric disease, and established strong collaborations with clinical research institutions and colleagues within the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and the Broad Institute.

Through neuroimaging studies conducted in collaboration with psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital, McGovern scientists have found patterns of abnormal activity in schizophrenic patients that could reveal the underlying causes of this disorder and may also aid diagnosis and treatment choices. Specifically, the researchers found that patients with schizophrenia exhibited an overactive ‘default’ network in the brain -- a network typically involved in self-reflection – both during a restful state and during the performance of a difficult task. The scientists suggest that this may reflect an inability of people with schizophrenia to direct mental resources away from internal thoughts and feelings and toward the external world in order to perform complex tasks. New projects are underway to discover brain markers that identify individuals at risk for the disease.

Also building on the schizophrenia results, McGovern scientists are collaborating with researchers at McLean Hospital to determine whether this ‘default’ brain network is similarly overactive in patients with bipolar disorder.

In two other studies, researchers are scanning patients undergoing treatment for depression and social anxiety disorder to look for markers of the psychiatric diseases as well as possible brain changes in response to treatment. Early results suggest that differences in brain structures may predict how well a person with anxiety disorder responds to a combination of drug treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy.

With new advances in pediatric brain imaging, McGovern scientists also hope to scan children at genetic risk for a range of psychiatric diseases including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and ADHD to see if brain differences can predict risk for illness.

In addition to human imaging studies, Poitras funding has enabled animal research into the neural basis of mood disorders and abstract reasoning, a cognitive ability known to be impaired in schizophrenia. Researchers, in collaboration with the Broad Institute, are also developing mouse models to screen new treatments for bipolar disorder.