The discipline of neurobiology was first formally represented on the Berkeley campus in the middle 1960′s when a Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Neurobiology was formed at the urging of several prominent faculty members, including Gunther Stent, Horace Barlow, and Gerald Westheimer. By the early 1970′s, the neurobiology faculty had grown within a variety of departments (Physiology-Anatomy, Electrical Engineering, Zoology, Optometry, and Psychology), and a Graduate Group in Neurobiology (now called the Neuroscience Graduate Program) was formed to grant a Ph.D. in Neurobiology. A major reorganization of graduate education in Biology was initiated in 1980. By 1989, 13 small biology departments on campus were replaced with the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB). At that time, the discipline of Neurobiology was formally and administratively recognized by the University, when it created the Division of Neurobiology within the Department of MCB. But this recognition only took the process for organizing Neuroscience at UC Berkeley half way. By 1996, Berkeley Neuroscience was distributed across campus in many different departments. MCB’s Division of Neurobiology  was established as the intellectual center for molecular and cellular neurobiology. Similarly, the Department of Psychology emerged as the de facto center for behavioral and cognitive neuroscience. The campus Neuroscience community needed to be unified.

Starting in the mid-1990’s, we began to lay the groundwork for a much bolder and more interactive program on campus stretching from genes and molecules to behavior and cognition. This was felt to be critical since Neuroscience transcends the boundaries that define traditional academic departments and modes of education and support. Indeed, Neuroscience has emerged as its own multidisciplinary field, spanning almost every area of modern science from psychology to biology to physical science.

The Center for Neuroscience was created in 1997 under the leadership of Professors Carla Shatz and Corey Goodman to meet the programmatic needs for integrating the diverse campus neuroscience community, to provide a home for new faculty appointed jointly with a variety of existing departments, and to oversee the Neuroscience Graduate Program. In 2000, the Center was formally renamed the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute (HWNI) in honor of a bequest by Helen Wills Moody in 1995 to endow the Neuroscience Graduate Program and to provide a cash gift to support the unified growth of Neuroscience on the Berkeley campus.

Helen Wills Moody 1932; Agence de presse Meurisse‏ [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Helen Wills Moody 1932; Agence de presse Meurisse‏ [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To bolster further the growth of Berkeley Neuroscience, at the time of HWNI’s founding the campus provided administrative support for overseeing the Institute and Neuroscience Graduate Program, and approved faculty appointments (FTEs) to HWNI. Since its inception, HWNI has been instrumental in adding over 20 new Neuroscience faculty to the Berkeley campus, with many of these faculty receiving formal HWNI FTEs as joint appointments with home academic departments (other HWNI faculty hold 100% appointments in their respective home departments and 0% appointments in HWNI).


HWNI Directors
Carla  Shatz, Ph.D. (1997-1999)
Corey Goodman, Ph.D. (1999-2001)
Robert Knight, M.D. (2001-2011)
John Ngai, Ph.D. (2011-2013)
Ehud Y. Isacoff, Ph.D. (2013-present)