A portrait of Myriam Heiman

Myriam Heiman

Investigator in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory
Associate Professor, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Contact Info

Office: 46-4303
Phone: 617-452-3717

Administrative Assistant

Katherine Olson
Email: kjo@mit.edu

Many neurodegenerative diseases are characterized by the early loss of select groups of cells in the brain, followed only later by more widespread degeneration. Understanding the cause of the enhanced vulnerability displayed by select cell groups may point towards the root causes of these diseases and lead to novel therapeutic targets. Professor Myriam Heiman’s lab studies the selective vulnerability and pathophysiology seen in two neurodegenerative diseases of the basal ganglia, Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

The easily recognizable ravages of Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease on normal motor control reflect the loss of either dopamine-producing cells (Parkinson’s disease) or dopamine-receiving cells (Huntington’s disease) in the brain. Until fairly recently, patients afflicted with these diseases would be diagnosed mainly by these abnormal motor behaviors. However, it was not known why a patient was afflicted; no usually suspected causes existed. The last twenty years have seen remarkable progress in the study of the causes of both diseases: it is now known which gene is altered in all patients with Huntington’s disease, and many genes have been implicated in Parkinson’s disease through human genetic studies. In the case of Huntington’s disease, detection of alterations in one gene, huntingtin, now serves as the definitive diagnostic tool. However, even in this one-gene disease, the full functional consequences of huntingtin gene alterations that lead to cell death are not yet understood.

Several fundamental questions arise from the knowledge that has poured forth from genetic and molecular studies of these diseases in human patients and mouse models: why do dopamine-producing cells and dopamine-receiving cells exhibit the greatest vulnerability in Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease, respectively, even though the genes linked to these diseases are expressed in so many different types of cells? What do the products of genes implicated in Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease do, or fail to do, in patients with these diseases? What is the influence of the normal aging process on the fate of the affected cells, and why do these diseases mostly affect older adults? Finally, in the case of Parkinson’s disease, what happens in the ravaged brain upon administration of drugs used to treat this disease – why do drugs lose their efficacy over time and have the side effects that they do?

To address these questions, the lab is utilizing a novel methodology termed Translating Ribosome Affinity Purification (TRAP). This methodology allows for the profiling of any genetically-defined cell type in any tissue: gene regulatory elements are co-opted to drive expression of a transgene that causes the incorporation of an affinity tag on translating ribosomes. Tagged ribosomes can be purified, along with all the messenger RNAs (mRNAs) they are reading. These mRNAs can then be analyzed to reveal the complete pattern of protein translation in any given cell at any given time. By combining the TRAP methodology with mouse models of Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, the lab hopes to understand the early molecular changes that eventually lead to cell death in these diseases.

Myriam Heiman received her Ph.D. in Biology from the Johns Hopkins University and her postdoctoral training in the laboratory of Paul Greengard at the Rockefeller University. In 2011, she joined the Broad Institute, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT.

  • 2022 - R35 Research Program Award (NIH/NINDS)
  • 2022 - NIH Director's Transformative Research Award
  • 2020 - Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, MIT Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
  • 2017 - Award for Excellence in Graduate Mentoring, 
    MIT Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
  • 2017 - Newton Brain Science Award

  • 2016 - Jeptha H. and Emily V. Wade Award

  • 2016 - Fay/Frank Award, Brain Research Foundation

  • 2015-  EUREKA award, NINDS
  • 2011 - William N. & Bernice E. Bumpus Foundation Early Career Investigator Innovation Award
Featured publications are below. For a full list visit the lab website linked above.

January 17, 2023
Matsushima, A., Pineda, S.S., Crittenden, J.R., Lee, H., Galani, K., Mantero, J., Tombaugh, G., Kellis, M., Heiman, M., and Graybiel, A.M. (2023). Nat Commun., 14(1):282.
August 22, 2022
Guillén-Samander, A., Wu, Y., Pineda, S.S., Garcia, F.J., Eisen, J.N., Leonzino, M., Ugur, B., Kellis, M., Heiman, M., and De Camilli, P. (2022). Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 119(35):e2205425119.
April 6, 2022
Lee, H., and Heiman, M. (2022). Neuron, 110(7):1087-1089.
February 14, 2022
Garcia, F.J., Sun, N., Lee, H., Godlewski, B., Mathys, H., Galani, K., Zhou, B., Jiang, X., Ng, A.P., Mantero, J., Tsai, L-H., Bennett, D.A., Shahin, M., Kellis, M., and Heiman, M. (2022). Nature, 603(7903):893-899.
March 31, 2021
Jeong-Tae Kwon, Changhyeon Ryu, Hyeseung Lee, Alec Sheffield, Jingxuan Fan, Daniel H. Cho, Shivani Bigler, Heather A. Sullivan, Han Kyung Choe, Ian R. Wickersham, Myriam Heiman & Gloria B. Choi. Nature (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03413-6

Petite & Profound

June 22, 2023
Research Feature
Why studying simple organisms—none larger than the palm of your hand—is so integral to understanding nervous system health, disease and evolution.

Immune & Inflamed

March 1, 2023
Research Feature
Neuroscientists are finding that immune system activity within the brain and the body has important impacts on mental health and behavior

How Huntington’s disease affects different neurons

January 20, 2023
Research Findings
A new study identifies cells that are the most vulnerable within a brain structure involved in mood and movement

NIH award to help Heiman unearth roots of Huntington’s pathology

May 26, 2022
New Research
Research Program Award will fund studies to find early triggers of disease progression

A new “atlas” of cells that carry blood to the brain

February 14, 2022
Research Findings
Single-cell gene expression analyses of human cerebrovascular cells can help reveal new drug targets for Huntington’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.

'Risky' Research

December 20, 2021
Research Feature
How bold new neuroscience research projects get off the ground

NIH award funds innovative investigation of neurodegenerative motor diseases

October 5, 2021
New Research
Large-scale, integrated application of advanced computational, biological techniques aims to discover mechanisms underlying ALS and frontotemporal lobar degeneration with motor neuron disease

From Brazil to Fenway Park, researcher strives to save lives with science

September 10, 2021
Picower People
As a researcher studying Huntington’s disease, and as a science communicator working tirelessly to keep Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking communities informed about Covid-19, Izabella Pena is focused on keeping people safe.

Summer students thrive in Picower labs

August 11, 2021
Picower People
Undergraduates from colleges across the country gain scientific training, mentorship and experience as participants in the MIT Summer Research Program

Basic cell health systems wear down in Huntington’s disease, novel analysis shows

February 23, 2021
Research Findings
A new computational approach for analyzing complex datasets shows that as disease progresses, neurons and astrocytes lose the ability to maintain homeostasis

Brent Fitzwalter
JPB Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow

Francisco Garcia
Graduate Student, Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Preston Ge
Graduate Student, Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Vanessa Lau
Laboratory Manager

Hyeseung Lee
Hereditary Disease Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow

Raleigh Linville
NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein  Individual National Research Service Award Postdoctoral Fellow

Sebastian Pineda
Graduate Student, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Izabella Pena
Hereditary Disease Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow

Suphinya ‘Bee’ Sathitloetsakun
Graduate Student, Biology