Every year, MIT challenges its alumni and friends to support its educational programs and research enterprise by giving during a 24-hour window. This year, friends and alumni of the School of Science stepped up to the challenge and put the school second overall in fundraising for the March 11 effort. 

With a record number of donors, MIT’s 24-Hour Challenge raised nearly $3.39 million to support the work of students, faculty, and staff across the Institute. For the School of Science, the donations went to support fellowships for our students, innovation in research and teaching, and the school’s flagship initiative researching healthy aging of the brain. 

Great challenges, enormous opportunity 

Dyann Wirth PhD ’78 served as this year’s 24-Hour Challenger for the School of Science and set an ambitious goal: 150 donors would unlock her first gift of $50,000; and if an additional 150 joined the Challenge, she’d double her gift. 

An expert in the molecular biology of infectious diseases, Wirth knows firsthand the importance of funding to support an active research program in the life sciences. 

“Supporting research into infectious diseases such as malaria necessarily means supporting the graduate students who are the heart and the soul of the lab,” says Wirth, who is the current chair of the World Health Organization’s Malaria Policy Advisory Committee. She is also a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Infectious Diseases at the Harvard University T. H. Chan School of Public Health. 

“An investment in educating the next generation of scientists is crucial to ensuring our health and well-being in the future,” says Wirth. “There has never been a more important time to support the life sciences — this is a time of amazing discovery, enormous opportunity, and great challenges.” 

The first donor threshold was surpassed in the morning of the Challenge and the next 150 donors followed soon thereafter. Putting the numbers over the top was a groundswell of support for the school’s Aging Brain Initiative. 

Micro challenge, macro need 

Today, an estimated 46 million people worldwide — 5.6 million in the United States — suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. That number is expected to double every 20 years as life expectancy rises and populations continue to age. 

Currently, there are no effective therapies and the economic burden of Alzheimer’s disease is unsustainable; in the United States alone, care for Alzheimer’s patients is estimated to total $1.1 trillion by 2050 with close to 14 million people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Despite these statistics, there is still limited federal support for Alzheimer’s disease funding. In the current National Institutes of Health budget, $6.4 billion is spent for cancer research annually compared to less than $3 billion for Alzheimer’s. 

“The tremendous need to address the burdens of the aging brain — memory loss, cognitive decline, and dementia — is what gave rise to an Institute-wide call to action at MIT,” says Michael Sipser, co-founder of the Aging Brain Initiative (ABI), MIT’s dean of Science from 2014 to 2020, and Donner Professor of Mathematics. Sipser spearheaded the initiative, along with a team of co-founders including LiHuei Tsai, director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Picower Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Tsai and other founding members of the ABI have conducted research into many aspects of neurodegenerative diseases, such as the genetic predispositions for developing the Alzheimer’s disease and the molecular and circuit mechanisms underlying disease pathology and memory loss. 

“The strength of MIT’s scientists is unparalleled,” says Priscilla King Gray, wife of former MIT president Paul Gray and leader of a microchallenge within the larger 24-Hour Challenge for the School of Science. Paul Gray died in 2017 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. “The importance of this Challenge is personal for me but pervasive for all of us. Having witnessed the cruel ravages of Alzheimer’s take a vast toll on the life of my husband, it is my hope that the funds raised will contribute to finding a cure for this terrible disease.” 

One of the most significant genetic risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s is a gene called APOE4, which is present in nearly half of all patients. A study led by Tsai and co-authored by ABI co-founder Professor Manolis Kellis shows that this gene significantly disrupts brain cells’ ability to carry out normal functions. Researchers showed that treating these cells with additional choline, a safe and widely available supplement, could reverse many of these effects. 

In other research, Tsai and ABI co-founders Professors Ed Boyden and Emery N. Brown have moved into clinical studies with non-invasive therapies using light and sound to restore the brain’s protective functions by reestablishing its gamma wave frequencies at 40Hz. 

“MIT scientists are opening the doors to an entirely new direction of brain research. It is a priority to support their efforts,” Sipser says of the 40Hz flashes of visible light and sound stimulation developed by Tsai, Boyden, and Brown. This non-invasive, inexpensive potential treatment for neurodegeneration — GENUS, for Gamma ENtrainment Using Sensory stimuli — has shown protection against neurodegeneration, preservation of memory, and improved cognitive performance in animal models and now trials on humans have begun. 

“We are uncovering the keys to neurodegenerative diseases on many levels in the brain,” says Glenda Mattes, who championed Gray’s Challenge on behalf of her late husband Donald Mattes ‘67, SM ‘69. “If we could change the life of one person, one partner, one family, what an achievement that would be!” 

At the end of day, more than 300 donors gave more than $50,000 for the Aging Brain and another $30,000 to the School of Science with more than 200 donations from alumni and friends. 

For her part, Gray says she believes that every step and every donation is on the path to progress. “Paul was an optimist who firmly believed in the power of taking action. If my story spurs someone to give — something, anything — that’s one more step toward a cure, and potentially, elimination of Alzheimer’s. I’m honoring his memory and protecting the memory of future people like Paul.” 

To give to the Aging Brain Initiative, please visit: https://picower.mit.edu/about/aging-brain-initiative 

To give to the School of Science, please visit: https://giving.mit.edu/explore/schools/science 

Julia C. Keller | School of Science