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Institute of Medicine (US) Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders. From Molecules to Minds: Challenges for the 21st Century: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2008.

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From Molecules to Minds: Challenges for the 21st Century: Workshop Summary.

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The goals of medicine are to “wrest from nature the secrets which have perplexed philosophers of all ages. . . .”

—Sir William Osler, 1849–1919

On June 25, 2008, more than 70 of the leading neuroscientists in the world gathered at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, DC, for a workshop hosted by the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM’s) Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders titled, “From Molecules to Mind: Challenges for the 21st Century.” Their goals were significant: Each participant was asked to identify one or two “Grand Challenges” that could galvanize both the scientific community and the public around the possibilities for neuroscience in the 21st century.

This idea of identifying Grand Challenges has a strong history in science. For example, as Kathie Olsen, deputy director of the National Science Foundation, reminded the panelists, the physics community was united in 2003 by the publication of Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos. This National Research Council (NRC) committee report identified a handful of fundamental questions about the universe, such as “What powered the big bang?” and “What is dark matter?” (NRC, 2003). More recently the National Academy of Engineering developed a set 14 Grand Challenges for engineering in the 21st century (NRC, 2008).2

In each case, a common purpose—combined with new funding, new technologies, new ideas, and an influx of new scientists—drove researchers to tackle problems that seemed impossible just a few years earlier.

Neuroscience has made phenomenal advances over the past 50 years and the pace of discovery continues to accelerate. Some of that progress has resulted from the simultaneous appearance of new technologies, like those of molecular biology, neuroimaging, and computer and information science. The progress of the past in combination with these new tools and techniques has positioned neuroscience on the cusp of even greater transformational progress in our understanding of the brain and how its activities result in mental activity.

Recognizing that neuroscience is not, of course, really a single field is important. Rather, it is a multidisciplinary enterprise including diverse fields of biology, psychology, neurology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, engineering, computer science, and more. If scientists within neuroscience and related disciplines could unite around a small set of goals, the opportunity for advancing our understanding of brain and mental function would be huge.

Exploring that potential set of common goals, or Grand Challenges, was one of the major goals of the workshop.

What Can We Achieve

For a Grand Challenges exercise to work, it must ask questions that are both big and answerable. The questions must fire the soul and stir the spirit, but also be approachable in a scientifically rigorous manner, explained Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and chair of the Forum on Neuroscience.

For neuroscience, the first part is easy. Neuroscience is aimed at one of the most fundamental questions of all: How does our physical body give rise to a person who can think, love, learn, and dream? Hippocrates identified the brain as the seat of human experience in 400 B.C., and we have been trying to figure out how it works ever since.

However, as was demonstrated throughout the workshop and as will be highlighted throughout this workshop summary, neuroscience has advanced to the point where answering those questions in a rigorous manner is truly possible, commented Leshner.

By the end of the workshop there was a sense of momentum and of new frontiers opening up, remarked Leshner. The brain is one of the most complicated and exquisite objects on earth. According to Colin Blakemore, a leading British neuroscientist from Oxford University and the former chief executive of the British Medical Research Council, “There are more neurons in the brain than there are stars in the galaxy.”

Who among us has not wondered how it all works; how the lump of our physical brain gives rise to someone who can want, and love, and read poetry?

About This Workshop

The Neuroscience Challenges for the 21st Century workshop was hosted by the IOM’s Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous Systems Disorders, which is a convening activity at the IOM dedicated to furthering our understanding of the brain and nervous systems, disorders in their structure and function, and effective clinical prevention and treatment strategies. The Forum brings together experts from private-sector sponsors of biomedical and clinical research, federal agencies sponsoring and regulating biomedical and clinical research, foundations, the academic community, and consumers to talk about issues of mutual interest and concern.

The goals of a forum, and this workshop, are not to provide specific recommendations or arrive at consensus conclusions; rather, a forum seeks to highlight important issues and articulate the challenges facing a particular scientific field. Organized by an independently appointed planning committee, the workshop was organized so that representatives of all corners of the neuroscience world could provide updates on the latest advances in the field, and then discuss how they related to the concept of Grand Challenges. Throughout the day, participants learned how advances in imaging technology, computer science, molecular biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience in general had made it possible for us to imagine understanding how the brain works at a fundamental level—something that was not possible just 2 or 3 years ago.3 In addition, each participant was invited to present his/her impression of what one or two Grand Challenges would be for the neurosciences. As a result, throughout this document key insights are attributed to at least one participant. When multiple parties were involved in fashioning or honing a single idea or insight, the author has endeavored to attribute that idea or insight to the key parties involved.

Leshner and Olsen concluded the workshop by synthesizing the day’s discussions into three overarching Grand Challenges that emerged during the workshop, which will be used to organize this workshop summary:

  • How does the brain work and produce mental activity? How does physical activity in the brain give rise to thought, emotion, and behavior?
  • How does the interplay of biology and experience shape our brains and make us who we are today?
  • How do we keep our brains healthy? How do we protect, restore, or enhance the functioning of our brains as we age?

In addition, this summary includes a synopsis of topics that emerged during the discussion that do not fall specifically under any one of the three Grand Challenge questions identified here, including some challenges and technical limitations as well as ethical concerns.



The planning committee’s role was limited to planning the workshop, and the workshop summary has been prepared by the workshop rapporteurs as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop.


Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos: Eleven Science Questions for the New Century was authored by the NRC’s Committee on the Physics of the Universe. Grand Challenges for Engineering was authored by the NRC’s Committee on Grand Challenges for Engineering. Neither was a workshop summary, but rather included specific findings and recommendations of the respective committee.


To download presentations or listen to audio archives, please visit http://www​​.aspx.

Copyright © 2008, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK50986


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