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Neuroscience institute to move from architectural icon into office space

The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, is cutting programmes and moving out of its architecturally acclaimed building complex. BioSurplus announced last week that it would be selling nearly 400 lots of scientific instruments and disposables, with an online lab liquidation auction beginning on 9 August.

But not everything will go. “We are not closing. We are taking a new direction,” says founder and director Gerald Edelman, who won a Nobel prize in 1972 for his work on antibodies. The institute will now focus on theoretical and computational neuroscience over experimental work. “Laboratory experiments are very different today than when we began in 1995,” says Edelman. “They require a lot more money and a lot more people.”

The Neurosciences Institute was established in 1981 as an independent non-profit at Rockefeller University in New York. When the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla recruited Edelman in 1992, part of the package was constructing a complex to house the Neurosciences Institute, which would lease its space from Scripps, explained Douglas Bingham, a vice-president at Scripps. According to the architects, Edelman asked for a “monastery for scientists”. It was designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, a husband-and-wife team responsible for several art museums. The institute has now rented office space in La Jolla, and it is unclear how many staff will remain, says Edelman. The institute’s website now lists 21 scientific staff members.

Although the lease was scheduled to end in 2014, Edelman, who was born in 1929, says that he wanted to end the lease early so he could supervise the institute as it moves into new quarters. “I am at a stage where I can’t look at the next 15 years, I have to look at the next 2 or 3. And so I decided to make the turnover now.”

The goal of the Neurosciences Institute, Edelman says, is to pick a few talented people, and give them freedom to collaborate, “not tied to [National Institutes of Health] neuroses but tied to pursuing a new idea.” The institute has funded itself not through peer-reviewed grants, but by raising millions of dollars from philanthropists and private foundations, but money is harder to raise during a downturn. The list of donors on the institute’s website was last current in 2006.

But Edelman is adamant that grant-funded processes stifle science. He has developed a theory called neural Darwinism, which explains higher brain functions as a result of many rounds of selection to promote certain patterns of neural connection. The institute is studying such processes using ‘brain-based devices‘, essentially simple robots that can sense aspects of their environment and accumulate behavioural patterns that have not been programmed. “They go out and they learn on their own,” explains Edelman. Next up, they will be monitoring what these devices do when deprived of sensory input, which Edelman believes could lead to insights about imagination and inner life.

Although he declined to discuss details, citing “a delicate situation”, research director Einer Gall said that the institute has assurances from private foundations that funding is available to continue theoretical work, and adds that the institute may be able to re-launch some experimental work should funds become available.

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