Grand opening of Max Planck Florida Institute in the USA
New institute brings together top research neuroscientists to collaborate on unlocking the mysteries of the brain
Jeff Atwater, Chief Finance Officer of the US State of Florida, Cornelia Quennet-Thielen, German State Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Prof. Peter Gruss, Max Planck Society President, and Dr. David Fitzpatrick, Scientific Director and CEO, opened the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI) at an official ceremony. It is the first institute of the Max Planck Society, which is based in Germany, to be located at the emergent research location of Jupiter, Florida, in the USA. The Max Planck Society, which today has over 80 institutes, is Germany’s leading research organization – since its foundation more than 60 years ago, it has produced 17 Nobel laureates from its ranks. Board of Palm Beach County Commission Chairman Steven Abrams, Jupiter Mayor Karen Golanka, Florida Atlantic University President Dr. Mary Jane Saunders and Max Planck Florida Foundation Chairman George Elmore also took part in the opening ceremony.
Focus on Basic Research
Basic scientific research can be slow, difficult and expensive, but it is nevertheless a vital element for practically all innovations. The Max Planck Society, which gives gifted scientists flexibility and financial backing, embodies the value of curiosity-driven and creative basic scientific research - an approach which has achieved proven results. The Max Planck Society is Germany’s most successful research organization – since its foundation in 1948 it has produced 17 Nobel Prize laureates from its ranks. This puts it on a par with the world’s leading and most prestigious research institutions.
In line with the maxim established by Max Planck that “understanding must precede application”, the society pursues its clear research mission to conduct systematic, science-driven basic research in the fields of natural, bio, human and social sciences. Researchers aim to achieve breakthrough innovations which provide the public with new applications and technologies over the medium term. Entire sectors of industry have been based on the basic research carried out at its institutes, such as the plastics industry, which would not have flourished without the Ziegler-Natta catalysers. It has produced techniques such as flash, which are today part of all MRT equipment and have become an essential part of medical diagnostics. And it has laid the foundations for the development of cancer treatments such as Sutent.
Max Planck institutes are engaged in research areas which are particularly innovative and are very time and cost intensive. The institutes are built up solely around the world’s leading researchers. They themselves define their research topics and are given the best working conditions, as well as free reign in selecting their staff. This is the core of the Harnack principle, which has been successfully applied for a hundred years and dates back to Adolf von Harnack, the first President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society founded in 1911. The Max Planck Society continues the tradition of its predecessor institution with this structural principle of the person-centred research organization.
The immediate need for research in the field of neuroscience is compelling. To this day, there are still a host of unanswered questions about how the brain develops, functions, and is organized. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism and schizophrenia are all neurological disorders that are well known to doctors, researchers and the public; however, despite intense efforts, treatments and cures remain elusive. The lack of fundamental knowledge about the brain has been a significant impediment to medical breakthroughs.
The research groups at the MPFI
The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience currently has nine distinct Research Groups, each led by one Group Leader and consisting of several researchers and students. They focus on a number of distinct areas such as neural disorders, brain signalling, cortical circuits, neural plasticity and digital neuroanatomy. Some of the main research areas are set out below:
- Dr. David Fitzpatrick, the Max Planck Florida Institute Scientific Director and CEO, focuses on how patterns of neural activity induced by experience shape the development of brain circuits early in life. Learning more about the fundamental mechanisms that are responsible for constructing circuits early in life is critical for developing treatments for a host of neurodevelopmental disorders.
- Dr. Bert Sakmann, a Nobel Prize winner, is studying the capacity for neural structures to change even during adulthood based on sensory experiences. Further understanding of the mechanisms that are responsible for this in the adult brain could provide new avenues for therapies that could optimize recovery of function impaired by neurological disease. Dr. Sakmann has also developed the first realistic three-dimensional diagram of a brain circuit—a major step towards creating a complete computer model of the brain.
- Dr. Ryohei Yasuda, the Max Planck Florida Institute Scientific Director, is working on the ability for synapses to change the strength of their connectivity, which is thought to underlie our ability to learn and remember.
- Dr. Sam Young is endeavouring to measure how information passes from one nerve cell to another – a necessary precursor to understanding the root causes behind Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease and mental retardation. He has developed research tools to study genes linked to Parkinson’s.
- Dr. McLean Bolton analyses the brain’s neural circuit function. She aims to establish how brain circuitry is altered by injury and by genetic disorders, such as Alzheimer's Disease, autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy.
- Dr. Jason Christie conducts research into neurotransmission at the synapses. He concentrates on how synaptic transmission becomes stronger or weaker due to preceding neuronal activity.
- Dr. James Schummers studies the functional organization of the neural circuits that comprise the cerebral cortex – he focuses on the brain region used for advanced intellectual activities. He is not just interested in neuronal cells but above all astrocytes. These belong to the glial cells and support the neuronal cells of the cerebral cortex in various ways.
- Dr. Hyungbae Kwon aims to understand how neural circuits are properly constructed by environmental inputs during development. His research will provide fundamental insights into the regulation of cortical circuit formation and provide an understanding of the development of neurological and psychiatric disorders.
- Dr. Hiroki Taniguchi conducts research into nerve cells that use the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA at their synapses. These inhibitory neurones regulate the activity of circuits in the cerebral cortex and play a key role in various disorders.
The Emerging Life Science Sector in South Florida
The MPFI is the newest addition to Life Sciences South Florida – an industry cluster in South Florida focused on life sciences, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, and information technology. With an increasingly globalized world, the Max Planck Society recognized the value of establishing an institute which would allow it to strengthen relationships with the outstanding scientific community in the USA. The selection of Palm Beach County was made due to the tremendous financial and collaborative commitment by the State of Florida, all levels of local government, the Business Development Board’s assistance, widespread support by the community and substantial collaborative opportunities with educational institutions including Florida Atlantic University.
The growth of Life Sciences South Florida is a success story for Florida’s economy. The industry has grown by over 42% in the past five years and has nearly 200 biotech companies in the state, according to BioFlorida, which tracks growth in this sector. Over the past decade, the State of Florida was ranked 1st for growth in the drugs/pharmaceutical companies, drugs/pharmaceutical employment and medical device companies categories —trends which continued even during the most recent recession.
The MPFI will contribute to the county’s overall economic base, establishing an important, sustainable foundation to develop and attract knowledge-based companies. This fosters future development in this industry cluster and creates a pipeline of high-salaried jobs.
The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience is also committed to promoting educational opportunities locally through graduate and undergraduate research programs, such as the Program in Integrative Biology and Neuroscience (IBAN), a PhD program offered in partnership with Florida Atlantic University; summer research internships; public lecture series; art exhibitions and the Brain Bee competition for local high school students.