Leading a Charge Against Psychiatric Disorders

Ted Stanley was a pioneer in mental-health philanthropy. Back in the late-1980s the billionaire retailer founded the Stanley Medical Research Institute, which quickly became the biggest private backer in the U.S. of investigations into bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—diseases the director described as “massively underresearched” by government health agencies. Stanley ended up funding between a quarter and half of all research on those two maladies, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in total.

Among other scientific contributions, this organization collected several hundred brains from persons suffering from various mental illnesses, which became the source for hundreds of thousands of tissue samples shipped to researchers making requests from all around the world. The Stanley Institute also supported scores of drug trials, seeking effective treatments via off-label uses of older medicines.

More recently, Stanley gave massive gifts for mental-illness research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. His initial $100 million grant established a separate Center for Psychiatric Research. In 2014 he announced a huge $650 million gift to the Broad Institute, bringing his total giving to that group to $825 million. These funds continued the work he launched there on uncovering the genetic roots of various psychiatric disorders.

And just days after Ted Stanley died in early 2016, the Broad Institute announced, in the words of director Eric Lander, "amazingly consequential" findings flowing directly from the research Stanley funded. By taking 100 genetic locations linked to schizophrenia by a 2014 Broad study and matching them with 29,000 patients showing symptoms of the disease, Broad researchers concluded that most schizophrenia is linked to one genetic variant that causes normal “pruning” of brain synapses to run out of control. This breakthrough could eventually lead to much better diagnosis and treatment of the 2-3 million schizophrenic Americans—whose suffering is often severe—while also reducing the economic penalty of tens of billions of dollars that the disease imposes on society.