The Institute was opened in 1930 as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research, and was re-founded as a Max Planck Institute in 1948. Its original goal was to apply the methods of physics and chemistry to basic medical research, and it included departments of Chemistry, Physiology, and Biophysics. In the 1960s, new developments in biology were reflected with the establishment of the Department of Molecular Biology. Toward the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, investigations began into the specific functions of muscle and nerve cells. New departments were established in Cell Physiology (1989-2007), Molecular Cell Research (1992-1999), Molecular Neurobiology (1995), Biomedical Optics (1999) and Biomolecular Mechanisms (2002). The Max Planck Research Groups for Ion Channel Structure (1997-2003), Developmental Genetics (1999-2004), Behavioural Neurophysiology (2008) and Developmental Genetics of the nervous system (2008) were also founded.
Since its foundation, five Nobel Prize laureates have worked at the institute: Otto Meyerhof (Physiology or Medicine), Richard Kuhn (Chemistry), Walther Bothe (Physics), Rudolf Mößbauer (Physics), and Bert Sakmann (Physiology or Medicine).
The Institute currently has three departments and two Max Planck Research Groups. The Department of Molecular Neurobiology focuses on the analysis and altering of mouse genes that are responsible for rapid signaling in the brain; the purpose is to investigate which brain capacities are inherited and which are learned. The Department of Biomedical Optics studies the activity of groups of nerve cells in tissue preparations and in laboratory animals with the use and continued development of multiquantum microscopy. The research in the Department of Biomolecular Mechanisms is aimed at establishing the molecular basis of model reactions, using the methods of biophysics and structural biology.
The Max Planck Research Group Behavioural Neurophysiology (Dr. Andreas T. Schaefer) aims to understand how complex behaviour emerges from the properties of molecules, cells and ensembles of cells. The Max Planck Research Group Developmental Genetics of the Nervous System (Dr. Soojin Ryu) aims to understand the molecular mechanism of neuronal circuit formation by studying the development of the hypothalamus.