New U of M research center to focus on how the brain works

A man stands in front of a window.
University of Minnesota professor and MacArthur fellow Damien Fair inside of the new University of Minnesota Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A new center to nurture unusual collaborations to explore brain development opened Monday in Minneapolis, on the site of a former children’s hospital.

The Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain allows health care providers, neuroscientists and educators to try to answer enduring questions of how brains are shaped by their environments.

One of the center’s leaders, Damien Fair, has long felt the limits of working as one cognitive neuroscientist against all the problems he wants to solve.

"When I started my laboratory, when I finished my training, I had lots of grandiose ideas about how my research could actually touch the people that I cared about. Folks in the community, folks with mental health disorders, kids in general. But I realized very quickly that there was zero chance that I could ever do that alone. It just requires so much more than just science."

Fair, a professor in both the University of Minnesota's College of Education and in the pediatrics department of the U's medical school, reflected on his work as a sizable squad of construction workers put the finishing touches on the new $60 million institute that will welcome researchers investigating how we become who we are.

Earlier in his research, Fair used MRI and functional MRI technology to gather data on how brains work. He was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, also sometimes known as a “genius grant,” in 2020.

He went on to help assemble a team of U of M experts to look at the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders. They focus on young children and teens. About 80 percent of brain development happens in the first three years of someone's life, and another significant percentage during adolescence. Fair and others are mapping normal development, too.

"It’s very difficult to take that discovery, and hand it off to the clinical trialist, or hand it off to the teacher, or hand it off to the policy maker, so they can use it to make people’s lives better every day,” Fair said in an interview at the new institute. “Our infrastructure is just not set up well for that baton handoff."

Now, with Fair’s guidance, the U has built a place to make it happen on a 10-acre former Shriners Hospital property in Minneapolis. The property included a 100,000-square-foot medical facility for children with a parking ramp and an attached hotel for families, sitting just down the Mississippi from the U's East Bank campus. The Shriners building was gutted and rebuilt.

A playground behind a brick building.
A playground behind the University of Minnesota Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"We're combining three different clinics,” said Jon Steadland, director of operations of the Masonic Institute. “All coming together under one roof, one operation right now.”

That means, for instance, doctors and psychologists may collaborate as they work with children and their families, rather than pursuing neurology or psychology separately. Academic researchers who use MRI imaging share the building with those who study parent and child interactions through one-way glass in observation rooms.

Experts in nature and nurture will work elbow-to-elbow in a giant room full of stand-up desks.

The facility has room for gatherings for community and patient organizations, research conferences, even summer camps for kids. Fair says that's all part of the institute's third arm — a community outreach effort to put into practice what others learn from clinical care and research.

"You know, it's been difficult to generate these kinds of ventures, mostly because it's very different cultures,” Fair said, adding grants and funding tend to help silo the different disciplines. “Our institutions aren't necessarily set up for collaborations."

The National Institutes of Health selected the Masonic Institute for a $26 million grant to study healthy brain development and gather data from 25 sites and more than 7,000 expectant mothers and their children.  

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