The Max Planck Institute for Brain Research is a fundamental research and scientific training institution focused on understanding the brain. The human brain is a formidably complex machine, composed of about one hundred billion neurons and trillions of connections, or synapses between them. Out of such a system, as if magically, arise perception, behavior and thought. The brain is often described as the "most complex machine in the known universe".
Brains are products of evolution, a response of biological organisms to selection pressure. Consequently, brains solve many complex, yet specialized problems: find food, identify and avoid danger, learn and recognize kin, learn from past associations, predict the near future, communicate, and in a few species, transmit knowledge. This all seems so simple. Yet we know that these problems are complex because our attempts at solving them with artificial machines have been disappointing so far. Today's computers are getting better at solving pure-computation problems (chess for instance). But they are still poor at solving object-, character- or face-recognition tasks, operations that our brains carry out effortlessly. And brains work with very little power (about 30W in humans). They are a triumph of efficiency.
Studying and understanding the brain is important for many reasons. First, it is a fascinating scientific challenge. Because of the diversity and complexity of the fundamental problems we face, modern neuroscience is an interdisciplinary science par excellence, involving (among others) molecular biologists, biochemists, geneticists, electrophysiologists, ethologists, psychologists, physicists, computer scientists, engineers and mathematicians. Understanding the brain requires reductionist approaches as well as synthetic ones. Simply put, it is a formidable and interesting challenge for scientists with a passion for fundamental research.
Second, understanding the brain is of paramount importance for medicine. Data from the World Health Organization show that psychiatric and neurological diseases are among the main causes of disability and disease. Indeed, in 2005, brain disorders accounted for 35% of the economic burden of all diseases on the European continent. While our institute is not a medical institution, the knowledge we produce (e.g., on mechanisms of neural development, synaptic plasticity or brain dynamics) is of fundamental relevance for applied neurological research (e.g., neurodegenerative diseases, psychiatric disorders).
Our goal is to be an institution where some of the best scientists in the world work together to understand the operations and function of nervous systems. Our scientific focus is on circuits, or networks of interacting parts-molecules in a neuron, neurons in a local circuit, circuit-to-circuit communication. Experimental work at the Institute is carried out on non-primate animal species (e.g., rats and mice, fish), in an interdisciplinary, interactive setting, located in the heart of the natural sciences campus of the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. Our immediate neighbors and scientific partners are the Biology, Chemistry and Physics Departments of the Goethe University, the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies (FIAS) and the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics. We also have close relationships with the Medical Science, and Computer Science (Center for Scientific Computing) and Mathematics Departments of the Goethe University, and the Ernst Strüngmann Institute, whose focus is on Cognitive Neuroscience.