A mere 2 millimeters may separate us from other members of the animal kingdom. That’s the approximate thickness of the cerebral cortex, a sinuously folded sheet of tissue on the outermost surface of the brain where the neural machinery resides for many capabilities, such as language and reasoning, that we think of as distinctively human. Pasko Rakic, M.D., Ph.D., the chair and Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Neurobiology, has spent a lifetime deciphering how the nervous system cells present at birth manage to arrange themselves into the highly ordered, densely interconnected and immensely complex circuitry of the adult cortex.

Now, thanks to the unique philanthropic vision of the Kavli Foundation, formed by California industrialist Fred Kavli, Rakic and other Yale neuroscientists with a special interest in the cortex have the tools to dig even more deeply into the mysteries of the human brain. Last year, the foundation announced the establishment of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale, one of only three such centers in the world devoted to brain research.

David Auston, Ph.D., president of the foundation, says that he and Kavli believe that Yale’s “outstanding group of neuroscientists will make important advances in understanding the basic functioning of the brain.” Most organizations that fund biomedical research, whether public or private, have a quite specific mission, often focused on finding treatments for particular diseases. But the Kavli Foundation bears the distinctive stamp of its Norwegian-born founder, a man with a sweeping intellectual interest in the fundamental scientific questions of our age.

The foundation has distributed more than $100 million in grants to create 10 Kavli Institutes that embrace science writ both enormously large and exceedingly small. Four institutes dedicated to astrophysics foster study of the origin and structure of the universe, while three others concentrate on nanoscience, a cutting-edge field devoted to the manipulation of matter at the molecular and atomic levels.

For Rakic, who serves as director of Yale’s Kavli Institute, it is no accident that the foundation has chosen neuroscience to bridge these extremes. “Fred Kavli understands that only the human brain is capable of grasping both the whole universe and the tiniest particle,” Rakic says, “so it has great intellectual appeal for him to learn how the human brain works.”

Kavli also firmly believes that unfettered inquiry is the best route to cracking these great puzzles, and the foundation has won great respect among scientists for its nonintrusive style. “For a typical grant, we must provide a timetable, even specifying what we will do in three years,” Rakic says. “Kavli realizes that in three years you might have changed your mind and decided that you need to do something else.”

Often a scientist has an intriguing idea, but not enough data for a full-blown grant proposal. The Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale has provided seed money for exploratory projects, Rakic says, helping scientists do the preliminary work that may lead to new lines of research. The institute has also sponsored lectures and informal brainstorming sessions with leading neuroscientists from around the world. Finally, the institute is planning annual symposia where acclaimed researchers will present the latest thinking in neuroscience.

“We are confident,” says Fred Kavli, “that the expert scientific team at Yale will make important progress in gaining understanding of some of the most complex and baffling secrets in nature hidden in the brain and mind.”