Research and technology to give people with disabilities the possibility of developing greater social and practical skills to enhance their participation in the educational system, in the workforce, and in community life.
The Alana Down Syndrome Center aims to deepen knowledge about Down syndrome and to advance the health, autonomy and inclusion of people with this chromosomal condition. A multi-disciplinary center spanning multiple labs and programs at MIT, the Alana Center engages the expertise, perspectives and ingenuity of faculty and partners in a broad range of studies and programs to understand the biology and brain science of Down syndrome. Their work seeks to develop and improve treatment and therapies, create assistive technologies, and to train a new generation of researchers.
The center launched March 20, 2019, thanks to a generous gift from the Alana Foundation
Research in the Center will investigate mechanisms and potential therapeutic interventions in two main areas: brain circuits and systems, and cellular mechanisms and genetic variation. With these approaches the team will strive to improve understanding of why Down syndrome children experience functional differences and what are the best ways to address them.
A partnership with the Deshpande Center at MIT, called “Technology to Improve Ability,” in which creative minds across MIT will be encouraged and supported in designing and developing technologies that can improve life for people with different intellectual abilities or other challenges.
Through postdoctoral and graduate fellowship programs, the center will train a new generation of talent to increase the number of young scientists who are enthusiastic about and skilled in Down syndrome research. Trained in the Center’s member labs in their advanced and innovative techniques, this class of postdoctoral fellows, doctoral students and undergraduate students will amplify the center’s discoveries and societal impact throughout their careers at MIT and beyond, for the benefit of people with Down syndrome and their families.
Dr. Tsai is the director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, lead investigator of the Aging Brain Initiative at MIT, Picower Professor of Neuroscience within the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Associate Director of the Glenn Labs for the Biology of Aging at MIT. She combines molecular, genetic, and circuit-based techniques for a “whole-systems” approach to understanding Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions that affect cognition and memory. Her lab is testing the hypothesis that non-invasive, sensory stimulation of a specific brain rhythm, disrupted in such conditions, may restore the brain’s ability to counteract disease pathology, including in Down syndrome. Her team is also studying gene expression changes in laboratory models of Trisomy 21. Tsai is a recipient of the Glenn Award for Research in Biological Mechanisms of Aging, the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award, the Mika Salpeter Lifetime Achievement Award for her research on brain development, neurological disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease and the Hans Wigzell Research Foundation Science Prize.
Dr. Amon is the Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor in Cancer Research, Associate Director of the Glenn Labs for the Biology of Aging, and Professor of Biology at MIT and at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Her work is focused on understanding the molecular elements of regulatory processes that control chromosome segregation and the consequences of failure in these processes on cell and organismal physiology. Missteps in chromosome separation are a major cause of conditions that result from missing or extra chromosomes, or aneuploidy, such as Down syndrome. Amon is a scientific advisory board member of the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome in the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado and a named investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She has identified new mechanisms for phenotypic variability and genomic instability from chromosomal disorders, and she has received numerous accolades for her work including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and
Engineers, the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award, the Ernst Jung Prize for medicine, the Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
Dr. Boyden is the Y Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology in the Departments of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and an investigator of the Media Lab at MIT and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Boyden engineers tools for mapping, controlling, and observing the dynamic circuits of the brain, which he will apply towards the study of the neurobiology of Down syndrome. Boyden also collaborated with Tsai in developing the non-invasive sensory stimulation method and will partner in the center’s efforts to test how it may help in Down syndrome. Boyden is one of the founding developers of optogenetic tools to activate and silence neurons with light. In 2010 his approach was recognized as the “Method of the Year” by Nature Methods and is now in worldwide use. He received the 2013 Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Prize, the world’s largest neuroscience prize, as well as the Canada Gairdner International Award in 2018. Boyden is also the 2016 recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
Dr. Kellis is a Professor of Computer Science at MIT, a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, where he directs the MIT Computational Biology Group, and an Associate Member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Kellis has developed pioneering computational machine learning methods for deciphering the mechanisms underlying complex disorders, and discovering new gene and pathway targets. He has also pioneered experimental methods for high-throughput dissection of gene-regulatory function. He combined these methods to gain new insights into the etiology of Alzheimer’s disease, immune disorders, obesity, schizophrenia, heart disease, and cancer and will apply his innovative approaches to understanding Down syndrome. He received the US Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (PECASE) from President Barack Obama, the NSF CAREER award, the Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and was named among the “Top 35 Innovators Under the Age of 35” by Technology Review, and one of the top 100 leaders in AI for health worldwide. He obtained his Ph.D. from MIT, where he received the Sprowls award for the best doctorate thesis in computer science.
Mr. Sandler is Executive Director of the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, which empowers some of MIT’s most talented researchers to make a difference in the world by developing innovative technologies in the lab and bringing them to the marketplace. He guides the Center’s strategic direction, ensuring successful execution of its mission, and managing day-to-day operations. With a strong background in the assessment of technologies for commercialization, Sandler will lead the center’s Technology to Improve Ability grant program to encourage the development and commercialization of new assistive technologies. Sandler engages innovators in a process the Deshpande center calls “select, direct and connect.” Research projects are chosen based on a project’s potential commercial and social impact. Teams receive intensive guidance in how to bring their inventions to the marketplace and form new spinout companies. To ensure the success of all these activities, Sandler builds and continually renews a broad network of relationships.
Working in the Tsai lab, Dr. Meharena has devoted himself to Down syndrome research, particularly in developing patient-derived stem cell brain models to understand the consequences of Trisomy 21 on the nuclear architecture, function and how these alterations result in the phenotypic differences associated with the pathologies observed in Down syndrome. Meharena has become an up-and-coming leader in the field. He has presented some of his discoveries at the T21RS Conference, Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference, and at the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress annual conference. Meharena has also forged a partnership with the LuMind Research Down Syndrome Foundation to explore the possibilities of utilizing CRISPR technology to mitigate some of the genome-wide disruptions induced by Trisomy 21.
Dr. Niederst is the Director of Scientific Initiatives for the Alana Down Syndrome Center and the Aging Brain Initative in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. In this role, she coordinates research activities, establishes new collaborations, and communicates scientific discoveries to the neuroscience field and the community at large. Prior to joining MIT, Niederst was a scientific editor at Cell Press, where she recruited and curated research articles for publication in Neuron, a top neuroscience journal. Her graduate studies focused on the development of novel technologies to better understand Alzheimer’s disease mechanisms in human neurons, and her postdoctoral work investigated genetic neurodevelopmental disorders.