Founding the Brain and Mind Research Institute

The idea for a Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI) at Sydney University developed against the background of growing concern for those suffering from diseases of the brain and mind, be they regarded as neurological or psychiatric. That concern was put into quantitative measure by the demographics concerning dementia and depression for even developed countries like Australia. At the time the BMRI was initiated in 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) had just predicted that the greatest disability (years of productive life lost) would within 20 years be major mood disorders such as depression and not ischemic heart disease or cancer which had been the leading causes of disability for decades.

These considerations required that a unique Institute be developed to bring together patients suffering from these disorders with neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists and basic brain scientists in the one setting, without the usual discipline-based academic and professional organization silos separating them out. Such an approach capitalizes on important ideas that can develop from unlikely sources, such as a contribution of a physicist to a problem associated with Parkinson’s disease, in a friendly but critical environment of laboratories and patient facilities. In particular it was recognized early on that both patients and clinicians, as well as the basic brain science researchers, should walk through the same doors to enter the various adjacent buildings, all connected by bridges, that constitute the Institute. In this way patients would realize that very active research on their problems was being pursued. On the other hand researchers, although their ambition might be to make a great scientific discovery, would realize that the business in hand is to some day make a major contribution to the amelioration of maladies of brain and mind.

Maxwell Bennett AO, professor of neuroscience in the discipline of physiology and university chair, wrote this account on the tenth anniversary (2013) of the University Senate permitting the establishment of such an Institute, for three reasons. First, the idea of an Institute of the kind described above is unique, important and worth proselytizing for. Second, it only came about because of the dedication of a number of members of the community who gave selflessly of time and money, in excess of $70 million, to bring it to fruition; they should be recognized. Finally, the development of this kind of Institute necessitates working across faculty demarcations that required proper accountability within the delegation of authorities in the University. This is a complex task given the extent to which Federal and State Governments, University and major philanthropy were involved. It has necessitated a detailed and well-documented narrative that at many times will become indigestible to the casual reader. Added to this is the problem that as this work is a personal account, the personal pronoun appears an inordinate number of times. All together this does not make for an attractive narrative. Nevertheless, a forensic-like account of the events that led to the establishment of the BMRI is necessary if the aims of this work, set out above, are to be met.

At this time (2015) the BMRI concept has received the wonderful accolade of being chosen by the University Executive to be a Strategic Priority Area for Collaboration (SPARC) in the future strategic planning of the University. The BMRI is about to transition to become the hub of a Brain and Mind Centre of the University. It is then an appropriate time to place the history of the BMRI in the archives of the physiology department, out of which the BMRI was initiated. The history can be found here.