Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research

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The mission of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute is to decrease the burden of psychiatric disorders through research. Disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and autism produce severe symptoms and significant functional impairments. According to the World Health Organization, psychiatric disorders are, in aggregate, the largest cause of disability worldwide. Despite the public health significance of these disorders and the distress they cause, progress on much needed new treatments has slowed to a near standstill because knowledge of disease mechanisms remains scant.

There is no more complex and challenging object of biological study than the human brain. Moreover, it is generally inaccessible to direct study in life. As a result, clues to pathogenic mechanisms of mental illness have been few and modest in nature. However, it has long been recognized that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are among the most highly heritable disorders in medicine—signifying that clues to molecular mechanisms are hidden in the genomes of affected individuals. These genetic clues have remained frustratingly out of reach waiting for advances in genomic technology that have now arrived: the cost of sequencing DNA has decreased by about one million-fold over the last decade, making it feasible to study tens of thousand of patients. Situated within the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, the Stanley Center can exploit the most advanced technologies for human genetic analysis to study psychiatric disorders. Working with a global consortium that has collaborated to solve the genetics of psychiatric disorders, the Center has thus far identified more than one hundred genetic loci (places in human genomes) that increase the risk of schizophrenia. Work on schizophrenia is continuing while significant efforts are ramping up in bipolar disorder, autism, and ADHD.

The discovery of genetic variants associated with disease is only the beginning. Our goal is not to end with a list of genes, but to contribute to new understandings and, above all, new treatments. Thus we have begun investigating the biology of risk associated genetic variants that we have discovered. We are studying relevant genes in human neurons that have been produced in vitro with stem cell technologies, and which have been engineered to contain the “risk” versions of genes. We are also investigating the effects of these genes in diverse animal models depending on the scientific questions posed—in zebra fish, mice, and other animals. As we make progress, our biochemistry and therapeutics groups are working toward the production of new chemical tools and ultimately new medicines. We are also allied with a clinical trials organization based at the Massachusetts General Hospital that will facilitate our ability to test biomarkers and to speed translation of new medicines to the clinic.

The Stanley Center has extensive collaborations with investigators both within the local Harvard, MIT, and Harvard-affiliated hospital communities and more broadly across the world.

All of our activities, from genetics to clinical trials would not be possible without the philanthropic support of the Stanley Medical Research Institute. Indeed Stanley philanthropy supported the ultimately successful genetic analysis of schizophrenia at a time when other funding agencies doubted the possibility of success.