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Harvard Receives $20 Million Gift to Fund Autism Research Center

The main quad at Harvard Medical School.
The main quad at Harvard Medical School. By Krystal K. Phu
By Alexis K. Bolner, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Medical School received a $20 million donation from philanthropists Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang to create a Center for Autism Research, which will study the biological factors behind autism, the University announced Thursday.

Michael E. Greenberg — chair of the neurobiology department at the Medical School — will be the faculty leader of the new center, which is named after Tan and Yang. The Center will be a part of the Harvard Brain Science Initiative, which seeks to “unite and inspire” brain scientists across the University, according to its website.

Greenberg said the Center will bring together various experts in schools including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Medical School, the Harvard School of Public Health, and Harvard’s affiliated hospitals.

“One of my goals is to bring the faculty in neuroscience across Harvard together to pursue various activities and research problems that are of interest and often involve disorders of the nervous system,” Greenberg said. “One of the challenges that face us now is trying to understand autism because it can affect as many as one in 10 individuals.”

Greenberg said that Harvard’s neuroscientists are still determining their research focuses, but will keep an “open mind” as they do so. One area of research that still requires more work is understanding genetic mutations and how they might affect brain development, according to Greenberg.

“Autism is an example of a difference that can give great insight into how the brain works, how it develops, and how it functions,” Greenberg said. “Since it’s been shown to be due to specific mutations, and that can be modeled in a mouse for example, where you make the mutation and then study brain development, we think that there’s promise towards really understanding both how the brain develops through studying these mutations and also making a contribution to the human condition.”

Tan — a graduate of Harvard Business School — and Yang have two children with autism. They previously launched a similar research center at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research in 2017; the new Harvard center will collaborate with MIT’s researchers. Tan and Yang’s contribution to Harvard brings their total autism research donations to $70 million.

Greenberg said he believes the center will have the potential to improve biological understandings of autism.

“We are very excited about the Center and hoping for great progress in the next few years,” he said.

—Staff writer Alexis K. Bolner can be reached at alexis.bolner@thecrimson.com.

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