The Neurosciences Institute

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The Neurosciences Institute

The Neurosciences Institute is a non-profit, scientific research organization dedicated to learning about the brain. Under the leadership of Nobel Laureate Gerald M. Edelman, M.D., Ph.D., the Institute focuses its theoretical and experimental work on the principles underlying how we perceive the world, how we learn and remember, and how consciousness arises.

The Neurosciences Institute (NSI) was founded in 1981 by Dr. Edelman in New York City. In 1993 it moved to La Jolla, California, and in 1995 into a newly designed headquarters in San Diego. The new building complex, which has received much acclaim for its architecture, was designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (previously Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates).

The Institute comprises a maximum of 40 Fellows, and a small support staff to allow for an ideal level of dynamic interaction. Each Fellow works on a project of great interest or promise with the flexibility to modify direction as the project and results take shape. Many projects are so remarkable and cutting-edge that they would not be eligible for government funding, which is often limiting. All projects are centered on gaining a deeper understanding of the human brain. The entire operation is overseen by Dr. Edelman, who attends weekly focused group meetings and daily lunches and provides essential counsel for all research projects. Fellows are not required to obtain their own funding and non-restrictive institutional funding is pursued, along with flexible project-based funding.



The Neurosciences Institute was established in 1981 and located as an independent entity on the campus of The Rockefeller University in New York City. It was founded in recognition that traditional barriers between disciplines had to be removed if fundamental brain functions were ever to be understood. It recognized the need for a different kind of scientific approach – one that emphasized formulation of scientific questions for future research, rather than only the assessment and dissemination of current knowledge.[1]

The Institute began by sponsoring various activities for visiting scientists; these programs were generally organized at the suggestion of individual scientists around a focused research problem. Over the last two decades, more than 1,100 scientists from 300 institutes and 24 countries have visited the Institute to meet informally in small groups to exchange information, to plan experiments to be carried out upon return to their home institutions, or to prepare critical evaluations of current research for communication to the scientific community.[1]

In 1988, the Institute began its own program of research in theoretical neurobiology. Carried out by a group of specially appointed resident Fellows, the program was designed to develop biologically based theories of higher brain functions and to train young scientists in the methods used to construct such neural theories.[1]

In 1993, the Institute moved from New York to temporary quarters in La Jolla, California, while permanent facilities were being constructed nearby on land owned by The Scripps Research Institute. The new three-building complex, designed by the architecture firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates, has been awarded numerous honors, including the Honor Award for Architecture from the American Institute of Architects in 1997.[2]

The complex includes experimental laboratories for research across a broad front of neurobiological disciplines, as well as facilities for theoretical research and for visiting scientists. With the laboratories complete, a research program for Fellows in Experimental Neurobiology was begun, thus fulfilling the original plan for the Institute’s full range of scientific activities

Gerald Edelman

Gerald M. Edelman, M.D., Ph.D. is Director of The Neurosciences Institute and President of Neurosciences Research Foundation, Inc., the publicly supported not-for-profit organization that is the Institute’s parent. Separately, he is Professor at The Scripps Research Institute and Chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at that institution.[3]

Dr. Edelman was born in New York City in 1929. He earned his B.S. degree at Ursinus College and an M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent a year at the Johnson Foundation of Medical Physics, and after a medical house officership at the Massachusetts General Hospital, he served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps. In 1960 he earned his Ph.D. at The Rockefeller University (previously Institute). In addition to the Nobel Prize, Dr. Edelman has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including many honorary degrees. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and several foreign societies, including the Academy of Sciences, Institute of France. He is author of over 500 publications.[4][5]

Dr. Edelman has made significant research contributions in biophysics, protein chemistry, immunology, cell biology, and neurobiology. His early studies on the structure and diversity of antibodies led to the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1972. His subsequent work led to the discovery of cell adhesion molecules (CAMs) which have been found to guide the fundamental processes by which an animal achieves its shape and form, and by which nervous systems are built. One of the most significant insights provided by this work is that the precursor gene for the neural cell adhesion molecule also gave rise in evolution to the entire molecular system of adaptive immunity.

Dr. Edelman has formulated a detailed theory to explain the development and organization of higher brain functions in terms of a process known as neuronal group selection. This theory was presented in his 1987 volume Neural Darwinism, a widely known work. Dr. Edelman’s continuing work in theoretical neuroscience includes designing new kinds of machines, called recognition automata, that are capable of carrying out tests of the self-consistency of the theory of neuronal group selection and that promise to shed new light on the fundamental workings of the human brain. A new, biologically based theory of consciousness extending the theory of neuronal group selection is presented in his 1989 volume The Remembered Present. A subsequent book, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, published in 1992, continues to explore the implications of neuronal group selection and neural evolution for a modern understanding of the mind and the brain. In his book Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness, Dr. Edelman offers an expanded model of the biology of consciousness. His latest book Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge explores the implication of this work for human understanding.


The Neurosciences Institute campus is located on Torrey Pines Mesa in La Jolla, California, which emerged in the 1990s as one of the world’s leading centers for biomedical discovery. It is bordered by The Scripps Research Institute and Scripps Clinic to the west, The Burnham Institute to the north, the University of California, San Diego to the south, and numerous biotechnology and pharmaceutical research companies to the east and in the immediate surrounding area.[6]

When seeking an architect, Dr. Gerald Edelman sought a style that would reflect his vision of a scientific monastery where creative study of the brain could be conducted with few constraining rules and unlimited opportunities for discovery and communication. The Neurosciences Institute’s poetic architecture creates a physical environment that nurtures the Institute’s unique scientific sociology and adds to the effective exchanges between researchers in theoretical and experimental neuroscience. New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien turned Edelman’s vision into an elegant reality with a design that for over a decade has nurtured scientific inquiry in an environment conducive to both private reflection and interactive exchange among scientists from different disciplines.[7]

The campus is composed of three distinct buildings, each with its own fascinating design but all complementing and connecting with each other by walkways and a central plaza.[2] The daily activities of the Institute are conducted in the Theory Center and the Walsh Family Laboratories. Theoretical and experimental research space, administrative support, and common areas are located in these buildings.

The Auditorium is designed to accommodate both scientific lectures and musical concerts. Noted acoustician Cyril Harris worked with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to create the 352-seat Auditorium. Considered to be among the most acoustically impressive small performance halls in the United States, the Auditorium has an original system of faceted, sound dispersing plaster panels that covers its walls and ceiling. Artists and audiences unequivocally confirm that the same sound is heard in every seat. As a community service, the Auditorium is made available without charge for use by select not-for-profit performing arts and educational organizations.

Neurosciences Research Program (NRP)

In 1962, a small group of committed scientists from diverse backgrounds but with a common interest in brain function began to meet regularly to share ideas about how the brain works. Their driving motivation was the recognition that traditional barriers between practitioners of different scientific disciplines had to be broken if the goal of fully understanding the complexity of brain functions was ever to be reached.[8]

Under the leadership of Francis O. Schmitt, a true scientific impresario, this informal college of scholars and research scientists was organized as the Neurosciences Research Program (NRP) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the next two decades, and through over 250 meetings and 125 scientific publications, the NRP developed innovative formats for intellectual exchange and disseminated knowledge to the worldwide scientific community.

The central group, whose members are called Associates of the NRP, includes no more than 36 scientists at any one time, with each individual serving for a term of seven years before becoming an Honorary Associate.[9] Over the past four decades, the list of current and Honorary Associates is a veritable “Who’s Who” of neuroscience and includes seventeen Nobel Laureates.

The Neurosciences Institute itself developed from the NRP as an independent institution on the campus of The Rockefeller University in New York in 1981.[10] The NRP moved from Boston to New York in 1983 and became part of the Institute, when it moved to La Jolla in 1995. The Associates continue to meet annually at the Institute. Nothing shows the vibrancy of the neurosciences better than the NRP’s annual meeting. For three days, the Associates eagerly share their latest research, and guest speakers spark the imagination with presentations providing views of the brain and its functions. Informal discussions break out among Associates on far-flung topics.


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