The Kavli Foundation and University Partners Commit $100 Million to Brain Research

Funds strengthen public/private BRAIN Initiative; Johns Hopkins University, The Rockefeller University and University of California, San Francisco announce
Kavli Institutes

OCTOBER 1, 2015 (WASHINGTON, D.C.) – The Kavli Foundation and its university partners announced today the commitment of more than $100 million in new funds to enable research aimed at deepening our understanding of the brain and brain-related disorders, such as traumatic brain injuries (TBI), Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“We are delighted to announce this major commitment to promoting a sustained interdisciplinary effort to solve the mysteries of the brain,” said Rockell N. Hankin, Chairman of the Board of Directors at The Kavli Foundation. “By transcending the traditional boundaries of research, the new neuroscience institutes will make breakthrough discoveries possible.”


October 1, 2015 - Briefing and Symposium

Capitol Building

Capitol Hill Briefing: Bolstering the Investment in Brain Research

Watch the bipartisan briefing that includes an update on the BRAIN Initiative. With special remarks from leaders of the United States Congress, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.


Washington Symposium: Neuroscience in the 21st Century

This special "mini-symposium" discussed the future of neuroscience and the BRAIN Initiative by hearing from some of the nation’s top neuroscientists, as well as leaders from key federal funding agencies. Moderated by Alan Leshner, CEO Emeritus, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).


The majority of the funds will establish three new Kavli neuroscience institutes at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU), The Rockefeller University and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). These institutes will become part of an international network of seven Kavli Institutes carrying out fundamental research in neuroscience, and a broader network of 20 Kavli Institutes dedicated to astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics.

An opinion piece by Robert W. Conn, President and CEO, The Kavli Foundation on the importance of philanthropy, business, and the federal government to make a sustained commitment to this endeavor. Published October 1, 2015 in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The new funding will support research that moves forward the national Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a public and private collaboration launched by President Obama in April 2013. At the time of the President’s announcement, The Kavli Foundation publicly pledged to spend $40 million in support of basic neuroscience research. “With this announcement, the Foundation more than meets this commitment,” said Robert W. Conn, President and CEO of The Kavli Foundation. “The establishment of three new institutes, along with the added investment in our existing neuroscience institutes, will further empower great scientists to help write the next chapter in neuroscience.”

The BRAIN Initiative is supported by federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and private partners such as The Kavli Foundation.

“The President launched the BRAIN Initiative to help unlock the mysteries of the brain, to improve our treatment of conditions like Alzheimer’s and autism, and to deepen our understanding of how we think, learn, and remember. The Kavli Foundation is responding to the President’s call to action by making investments to advance the goals of the BRAIN Initiative. I hope this spurs other private, philanthropic, and academic institutions to support this important initiative,” said John P. Holdren, PhD, assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The Kavli Foundation Funding BreakdownClick the image for the full-size diagram.

The three new institutes are the Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute at JHU, the Kavli Neural Systems Institute at The Rockefeller University and the Kavli Institute for Fundamental Neuroscience at UCSF. Each of the Institutes will receive a $20 million endowment supported equally by their universities and the Foundation, along with start-up funding. The Foundation is also partnering with four other universities to build their Kavli Institute endowments further. These Institutes are at Columbia University, the University of California, San Diego, Yale University and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The BRAIN Initiative calls specifically for establishing new interdisciplinary collaborations aimed at creating novel new technologies for visualizing the brain at work.

"The cultivation of diverse partnerships, with government, big and small business, non-profits and academia, is a critical step on the path to unravel the mysteries of the brain," National Science Foundation Director France Córdova, PhD, said. “Only through continued investments in collaborative, fundamental research will we develop the innovative tools and technologies needed to help us understand the brain, which is the ultimate goal of the BRAIN Initiative. Progress in this area will bolster America’s health, economy and security.”

In the spirit of the interdisciplinary charge of the BRAIN Initiative, the new Kavli Institutes each work across their universities and with outside partners:

  • The mission of the new Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute (Kavli NDI) at JHU is to bring together neuroscientists, engineers and data scientists to investigate neural development, neuronal plasticity, perception and cognition. “The challenges of tomorrow will not be confined to distinct disciplines, and neither will be the solutions we create,” said Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels. “The Kavli Foundation award is a tremendous honor, because it allows Johns Hopkins to build on our history of pioneering neuroscience and catalyze new partnerships with engineers and data scienctists that will be essential to building a unified understanding of brain function.”
  • At The Rockefeller University, the Kavli Neural Systems Institute (Kavli NSI) will also promote interdisciplinary research and learning to tackle the biggest questions in neuroscience through high-risk, high-reward projects and the development of new research technologies. “Kavli’s investment in neuroscience at Rockefeller will enable us to create and share new research approaches and laboratory technologies to capture the possibilities of neuroscience from the micro to the macro level,” said Rockefeller President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD. “For example, Rockefeller scientists are currently developing a number of tools to push neuroscience forward, including advanced neuronal recording capabilities, sophisticated three-dimensional imaging, and non-invasive activation of neural circuits, among others.”
  • The Kavli Institute for Fundamental Neuroscience (Kavli IFN) at UCSF will focus initially on understanding brain plasticity, the remarkable capacity of the brain to modify its structure and function. The Kavli IFN will partner with engineers at two San Francisco Bay-area national laboratories to develop new tools and approaches to brain research. “UCSF scientists have made some of the seminal discoveries in modern neuroscience,” said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “The Kavli Institute will sustain this rich tradition into the 21st Century.”

“While private funding should never supplant federal funding,” said Conn, “the scientific enterprise also depends on philanthropic giving to catalyze pioneering new directions and discoveries.”

“Understanding the complex language of brain circuits—and how they function in both health and disease—is one of the greatest challenges in science. This effort will be made possible by cooperation across disciplines to build the advanced tools necessary to probe the brain in fine detail. The commitment of both public and private organizations brings much needed firepower and interdisciplinary expertise to this endeavor,” said Walter Koroshetz, MD, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the co-chair of the NIH BRAIN Initiative.


The Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute at Johns Hopkins University

The Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute (Kavli NDI) is designed to integrate neuroscience, engineering and data science — three fields in which JHU has traditionally excelled — to understand the relationship between the brain and behavior.

In the past 25 years, rapid progress in neuroscience has yielded a wealth of new data about brain structure and function at different scales, from the level of single cells to the whole brain. But neuroscientists need to find ways to connect their knowledge of the brain across these scales. Kavli NDI plans to bring together biologists, engineers and data scientists to acquire large data sets that span spatial and temporal scales, create new technologies for measuring and manipulating neural activity, and develop theoretical models of brain function.

“Neuroscience is inherently interdisciplinary. You can study the biochemistry of the brain, but how does that relate to circuits and behavior? It’s tough to answer that in a single laboratory. It necessitates interaction and collaboration, and with Kavli NDI, we’re trying to take that to a new level to understand the brain,” said the Institute’s inaugural director, Richard L. Huganir, PhD, professor and director of the Department of Neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

The 45 initial members of Kavli NDI, including Huganir and co-director Michael I. Miller, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering, are drawn from 14 different departments in The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Engineering, Arts and Sciences, Public Health and the Applied Physics Laboratory. The leadership of Kavli NDI consists of an equally multidisciplinary executive board and steering committee.

JHU is home to one of the first neuroscience departments in the country, which Huganir has overseen since 2006. His research focuses on the molecular and cellular mechanisms that regulate the function of synapses, the connections between neurons. Biomedical engineering as a discipline also began at JHU and its program is ranked first in the country. Kavli NDI’s co-director, Miller, develops mathematical and computational techniques to extract meaning from neuroimaging data. He is also director of the Center for Imaging Science at JHU.

New experimental tools in neuroscience are yielding larger and more complex data sets than ever before. But the ability of neuroscientists to manage and mine these data sets to maximal effect has lagged behind, as has their ability to model the behavior of cells and circuits in the brain. Kavli NDI aims to change that by drawing on the university’s expertise in “big data” analytics, stemming in part from its involvement in the university’s Sloan Digital Sky Survey astronomy project. The new institute’s emphasis on data science — both the creation of data analysis and management tools and the emphasis on rigorous modeling, simulation and theory — sets it apart, said Miller.

“Our ability to collect cellular neural data is growing at a Moore's Law kind of doubling rate. At the same time, our ability to image the brain at different scales is producing massive data sets. One of the fundamental problems we all face now is how to connect the information that is being represented across scales. With this deluge of data, mathematical, algorithmic and computational models become perhaps more important today in neuroscience than ever before," he said.

The Kavli Neural Systems Institute at The Rockefeller University

The Kavli Neural Systems Institute (Kavli NSI) aims to draw on The Rockefeller University’s culture of creativity and excellence to solve the most challenging problems in neuroscience, such as: how the astonishing array of cell types in the brain arise from a single fertilized egg; how the brain processes information so rapidly; and how the brain and nervous system control complex behaviors. The long-term goal is to reach an integrated understanding of the brain as a neural system that supports complex, higher cognitive functions.

Thirty-six Rockefeller faculty members, or Heads of Laboratories, will join Kavli NSI. Among these will be faculty in the early stages of the careers and members of the Center for Studies in Physics and Biology, which was founded by neuroscientist Torsten N. Wiesel, president emeritus of The Rockefeller University, to unite physicists and biologists around common biomedical problems, particularly those of neuroscience.

“We’re reaching a phase where many of the tools we need to make new discoveries in neuroscience are coming from the physical sciences into biology — these include the hard tools, or technologies, but also conceptual tools. Rockefeller’s neuroscience labs are in the vanguard of this change, and the new Kavli Institute will help us codify this culture,” said Cori Bargmann, PhD, Torsten N. Wiesel Professor at The Rockefeller University and head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior.

Bargmann will serve as co-director of Kavli NSI with Jeffrey M. Friedman, MD, PhD, Marilyn M. Simpson Professor and head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics. Bargmann studies the relationship between genes, neural circuits and behavior in the worm C. elegans, a model organism in neuroscience. She served as co-chair of the National Institutes of Health working group for the BRAIN Initiative, which outlined a 12-year scientific vision for the project. In 2012, she was one of three scientists who were awarded the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience “for elucidating basic neuronal mechanisms underlying perception and decision.” Friedman’s research focuses on the molecular mechanisms that regulate food intake and body weight. He has received Lasker and Gairdner Awards for his discovery of leptin, a hormone that interacts with receptors in the brain to regulate food intake and energy expenditure. Kavli NSI’s associate director will be Leslie B. Vosshall, PhD, Robin Chemers Neustein Professor and head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior. She studies fruit flies and mosquitoes to understand how the nervous system processes and perceives odors.

The convergence of neuroscience with such fields as bioengineering, nanoscience, and computer science, as well as mathematics and theoretical and experimental physics, will accelerate in the coming decades. The impact of this scientific convergence is evident in The Rockefeller University’s neuroscience laboratories, which are seeded with investigators trained in physics, engineering, and computer science.

The Kavli NSI will enable Rockefeller scientists to fast-track their collaborations with individuals outside of the life sciences. It will also provide much-needed seed funding that will allow Rockefeller investigators to launch high-risk, high-reward research initiatives.

“Our focus is on developing a deeper understanding of the configuration and function of the mind and brain,” says Tessier-Lavigne, Carson Family Professor and head of the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair. “The success of the Kavli Neural Systems Institute at Rockefeller will be measured by how far we have departed from our current neuroscience research portfolio 20 years from now.”

The Kavli Institute for Fundamental Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco

The brain is dynamic, constantly changing in response to cues from an ever-changing environment. Despite this state of flux, it maintains the abilities we’ve learned and the memories we’ve made over a lifetime. The question is how is that plasticity and stability established and maintained? Members of the Kavli Institute for Fundamental Neuroscience (Kavli IFN) will seek the answers by bringing together the diverse expertise of neuroscientists, engineers and computational scientists—on campus and beyond.

“How does the brain maintain function despite the fact that it’s constantly changing? The study of plasticity, changes in the brain, at all levels is an area where UCSF has been a leader for many, many years. At Kavli IFN, we’re going to take a problem that we’re experts in and try to unite that with the computational and technological abilities of other groups to make what we hope will be very fundamental progress,” said Loren Frank, PhD, a professor of physiology at UCSF, who will serve as the Institute’s inaugural co-director along with Roger Nicoll, MD, professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology and of physiology.

Frank is a newly named Howard Hughes Medical Investigator who studies the neural basis of learning, memory and decision-making. His expertise spans neuroscience, statistics, engineering and computer science, and he has ongoing projects to develop new tools for monitoring and manipulating neural activity in rodents. Nicoll studies the molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie neural plasticity. He has been a primary investigator for more than 40 years and is the recipient of numerous neuroscience awards.

Kavli IFN’s initial 36 members are drawn from more than one dozen departments around the university and outside institutions, namely two San Francisco-area national labs, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). The goal of these partnerships is to create new and innovative technologies for brain research and to bring an engineering approach to solving problems in neuroscience.

Kavli IFN will also establish a link with the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences based at UCSF, where researchers use the tools of mathematics, physics, computer science and engineering to make sense of the complexity of cell biology. This relatively new approach, known as systems biology, may prove valuable to neuroscientists seeking to understand the complexities of the brain.

“I think new scientists are going to need the skills to think about complex, interacting systems such as the billions of neurons that make up the human brain. The Kavli Institute is positioned to train them in these system-building, system-identification and system-understanding tools, both with a connection to the engineers and the connection to the computational scientists,” said Frank.

Key initiatives of Kavli IFN will be: a technology core for the development of new brain research tools; a pilot grant program to support projects that bring together neuroscientists, computer scientists, computational biologists and engineers; start-up funds for newly hired computational and theoretical neuroscientists; and mentoring and support programs for the next generation of neuroscientists.

Kavli IFN will be overseen by an executive committee that draws its members from UCSF and the national labs, including Paul Alivisatos, a nanoscientist at LBNL and co-director of the Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

“UCSF enjoys great strengths in fundamental neuroscience on our own campus, but we are also fortunate to be located in a region that fosters innovation and collaboration,” said Hawgood. “By forging partnerships with engineers, nanoscientists, and computer scientists at our local national laboratories through the Kavli IFN we can design and build the tools that will propel neuroscience research to new frontiers.”

About The Kavli Foundation

The Kavli Foundation, based in Oxnard, California, advances science for the benefit of humanity, promotes public understanding of scientific research, and supports scientists and their work. The Foundation's mission is implemented through an international program of research institutes in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics, and through the support of conferences, symposia, endowed professorships and other activities. The Foundation is also a founding partner of the biennial Kavli Prizes, which recognize scientists for their seminal advances in three research areas: astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.

The Kavli Institutes in neuroscience are: