Simons Center for the Social Brain Enters Second Phase

  • Feature Story

Simons Center for the Social Brain Enters Second Phase

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Eleana Ricci and Alexandra Sokhina

The mission of the Simons Center for the Social Brain (SCSB) at MIT, now in its sixth year, is to understand the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition and behavior, and to translate this knowledge into better diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). SCSB was founded in January 2012 with support from the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), and completed its first five-year phase of funding in December 2016. In January 2017, it was renewed for a second phase.

“We believe that the most novel research ideas and approaches come from collaborations, rather than within-lab research funded by usual mechanisms”, says Mriganka Sur, Director, Simons Center for the Social Brain. “SCSB offers a unique window into the success of this approach and how it can help move the field forward.”

SCSB studies the underlying mechanisms of ASD in both humans and relevant model organisms and systems, as neural correlates of social cognition and behavior exist in diverse species. Its approaches take advantage of MIT’s strengths in genetics and genomics, molecular and cell biology, analyses of neural circuits and systems, cognitive science, computation and engineering.

To strengthen its community, SCSB runs a colloquium series which brings major autism researchers to MIT, and has become the preeminent forum in the Boston area for research on autism and neurodevelopmental disorders. In addition, SCSB hosts a lunch talks series featuring postdoctoral fellows and faculty PIs presenting their latest, ongoing research.

“SCSB provided the community and resources that shaped my research directions, helped me find collaborators, and gave me the support and freedom to try some of the outside-the box experiments that wouldn't have been successful otherwise,” says Ian Slaymaker, a former Simons Postdoctoral Fellow in Feng Zhang’s laboratory. “Additionally, the diverse speakers hosted by the Simons center broadened my exposure to varied research”

In its first phase, SCSB funded seed grants that required 2 co-PIs, postdoctoral fellows who were required to have 2 mentors across different labs, equipment for multiple researchers, and targeted projects that involved 3-4 researchers bridging multiple levels of analysis---such as gene discovery, animal models, brain imaging, cognitive science, computation. In its second phase, SCSB will focus on targeted projects and postdoctoral fellowships.

“Our challenge is to continue to build the strength of our vision, and show that our collaborative research model is transformative for the field,” says Sur. “I strongly believe it is!”

SCSB by the Numbers: The First Five Years

  • SCSB serves as a bridge connecting 11 Boston-area institutions. At MIT alone, it supports 18 departments, laboratories and centers.
  • SCSB has provided $15,435,558 in funding to researchers, supporting seed grants, postdoctoral fellowships, targeted projects and equipment. Subsequently, initial support from SCSB has enabled $43,160,851 in grants from external sources like the NIH and private foundations, to pursue research projects further.
  • SCSB has supported 74 investigators and 31 postdoctoral fellows.
  • In the first five years alone, 208 publications have resulted from SCSB support.

For more information on SCSB research, events, targeted projects and postdoctoral fellowships, visit scsb.mit.edu