The McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT has established a center dedicated to autism research. The center is made possible by a kick-off commitment of $20 million, made by Lisa Yang and MIT alumnus Hock Tan ’75 SM ’75.
The Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research seeks to distinguish biomarkers of autism spectrum disorders (ASD); understand these disorders at the molecular, cellular, and circuit levels in a variety of models and humans; and ultimately identify novel targets that will accelerate the development of autism therapy options by the private sector.
A desire to boost interdisciplinary and cutting-edge research into the genetic, biological, and neurological mechanisms underlying this intractable disorder led Lisa Yang and Hock Tan ’75 SM’75 to establish the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at the McGovern Institute in 2017. They founded the center to support and catalyze revolutionary new research approaches and potential treatments for individuals affected by this disorder.
The center, headed by Robert Desimone emphasizes novel projects that are difficult to fund through traditional grants. By concentrating research efforts on new models, therapeutic approaches, and a push toward understanding changes in the human brain, our scientists are pursuing bold, interdisciplinary research that will lead to a deeper understanding of ASD and better treatment options in the future.
The MIT-based center is partnered with the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at Harvard University. The two centers share a common scientific advisory board and have joint symposia to facilitate the sharing of research findings and technologies across institutions on a regular basis.
The gift that founded the center came with an emphasis on visionary, innovative, and multidisciplinary approaches to ASD. These approaches, listed below, support the center’s core aim of understanding the genetic, biological and neural bases of ASD. The ultimate goal of the center is to identify novel targets that will accelerate the development of autism therapies by the private sector.
(1) New Models -- New models of autism provide a context for understanding and testing new therapies for autism spectrum disorders. At the Tan-Yang Center, we are developing non-human primate models to understand and test therapies in a context where overall brain structure better reflects the human brain, and where complex social interactions and cognitive changes can be examined.
(2) Gene Therapy -- An increasing number of large-scale sequencing and genetic studies are putting forth candidate changes that may underlie symptoms seen in ASD. Expanding the genome editing toolbox will allow us to target genetic changes linked to severe forms of autism.
(3) Gut-Brain Connection -- New tools are being developed and used at the Tan-Yang Center to understand how gastrointestinal dysfunction arises and influences the brain in autism. Animal models provide our researchers with the opportunity to probe gastrointestinal symptoms and understand cause and effect in terms of interaction with the brain.
(4) Human Studies -- Tan-Yang researchers are developing robust approaches to human neuroimaging to understand brain regions underlying changes in autism and to test the clinical relevance of observed brain differences.