Nervous System Development and Function

Whitehead Institute researchers are making important insights into the biology of the brain, from how it develops to what goes awry in neurodegenerative diseases and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Red lines with green blobs between.

Oligodendrocyte image.


Olivia Corradin/Whitehead Institute

Our Focus

The brain is a complex organ, and much of its biology remains to be discovered. Teasing out the specific mechanisms that help a healthy brain develop, or that may go awry in disease, can be a challenge—especially given that researchers have no real access to patients’ brain cells over the course of development or disease. Our researchers are developing new solutions for how to investigate the brain and discovering many important, informative aspects of brain biology.


A pink brain illustration.


Green and yellow neurons.

ZEISS Microscopy / CC BY 2.0.


Devon Svoboda

Major Achievements
Discovery of harmful RNA aggregates

Whitehead Member Ankur Jain has discovered that certain RNAs can form aggregates, clumping together into membrane-less gels. This process, known as phase separation, has been widely studied in proteins but not in RNA. He has found that RNA gels occur in, and could contribute to, a set of neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Huntington’s. 

A new system implicated in multiple scelerosis

Fellow Olivia Corradin and her lab investigate disease-associated DNA sequence changes called genetic variants—slight differences in the same DNA sequence that vary from person to person—that are risk factors for MS. Their key discovery, published in 2020, was that immune cells are not the only cell types implicated in the development of MS; rather, genetic variants that affect cells in the central nervous system also appear to contribute to the disease.