Advances in medical research have largely focused on cancer and cardiovascular diseases, whereas studies on the brain have only recently begun to gain traction. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, autism and multiple sclerosis, strike an estimated 50 million Americans each year.
The gift, which is one of the largest ever made to support the neurosciences in the United States, is also the largest single donation to UCSF in the university's history. It raises philanthropic commitments to the university's neuroscience programs in the past year to more than $500 million.
UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood said he was thankful to the Weills, saying they had challenged the university to think big. "Now is the moment for the neurosciences to begin making a real difference in the lives of patients and their families," Hawgood said.
The 270,000-square-foot UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences will be constructed at UCSF's Mission Bay campus and will house clinics for patients with brain and nervous system disorders, as well as state-of-the-art research laboratories. The donation will also establish the UCSF Weill Innovation Fund, which will provide support for high-risk, high-reward research projects that focus on finding new treatments for neurological and psychiatric illnesses.
Sandy Weill, who serves as chairman of the executive council of UCSF Health, said he and his wife recognized the potential of the university's physicians and scientists to advance the understanding of brain diseases, and so were inspired to make the gift. Weill told CNBC that philanthropy was not just about the monetary donation, but the passion behind the cause.
The Weill family has been personally touched by the hardships of neurological disorders. Sandy's mother passed away from Alzheimer's and his father died while experiencing severe symptoms of depression. Joan's mother, however, lived with a sharp mind until nearly the age of 101.
Joan Weill said the goal of the gift was to help improve people's lives and eventually get rid of the stigma associated with mental illness.
"We want to keep healthy brains healthy...and help find treatments for those affected by mental illness, which is heartbreaking for so many patients and families around the world."
In total, the Weills have donated more than $1 billion to various causes ranging from education and medicine to cultural and artistic. The couple's most notable contribution was $600 million to Sandy Weill's alma mater, Cornell University, and to Weill Cornell Medicine. They were among the original signatories of "The Giving Pledge," a commitment spearheaded by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to encourage the world's wealthiest to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.
This is the second high profile multi-million dollar donation to medical research this month. Tech billionaire Sean Parker recently announced a $250 million donation by his organization, The Parker Foundation, for the research of immunotherapy in cancer treatment.
Sandy and Joan Weill will appear on CNBC's "Closing Bell" today at 3pmET.