“Everything that we can perceive and understand..happens with this three pounds of goo”.
Bill Newsome isn’t stuffy about his favorite subject, the human brain. Professor William Newsome, Ph.D is the director of Stanford Neurosciences Institute and graciously met with me on October 12, 2017 to talk about neurosciences research at Stanford.
The Institute incorporates organizational principles discovered through Stanford Bio-X, an interdisciplinary approach to biological sciences started in 1998. The image of the lone scientist in the lab shouting “Eureka” is way outmoded. (For starters, I don’t think anyone says “Eureka” anymore.) Stanford, the inspiration for Silicon Valley, has applied the same interdisciplinary strategy to research; this pioneering approach has resulted in a strong model for innovation. Stanford Bio-X has fostered more than 500 interdisciplinary faculty teams, resulting in not just exciting science, but also more than 30 patent filings and (of course) numerous startup companies.
Dr. Newsome freely admitted that when Stanford Bio-X and its interdisciplinary strategy was first proposed in the late 90s, “I was pretty skeptical– it seemed like a radical, almost foolish idea. You had scientists coming from different departments with different tools, vocabulary, conceptual frameworks.” But today, Dr. Newsome is enthusiastic about the “social experiment” of interactions, especially among students and postdocs– “this is where the ideas come from!” He noted that the Clark Center (HQ for Bio-X) had a “minimum of walls” – literally and figuratively — and added about the ferment of ideas this has fostered: “It’s really fun!”
Interestingly, when I asked Dr. Newsome what his biggest challenge was, it was continuing this collaborative culture change. He said, there is “creative tension” between the traditional departments whose mission is to maintain rigorous disciplinary integrity and recognized excellence within the discipline and on the other hand, the Institute whose mission is to see new possibilities by getting out of the disciplinary comfort zone.
A sampling of current Parkinson’s research at Stanford is in a separate post. Dr. Newsome confirmed that the Institute’s research focus is more on basic science and tools to examine the brain, rather than clinical trials. He used a traffic engineering analogy (more of that interdisciplinary approach!) to explain the areas of research:
–Mapping the brain circuits (the route map), e.g., making mouse brain transparent to have a 3-D view of circuit pathways
–Signal dynamics (what is the traffic like on the map), e.g., using a larval zebra fish with transparent skin so you can see the signal pulse through a live brain
–Signal manipulation (if I put in a new stoplight, what happens to traffic), e.g., controlling specific neural circuits with light (optogenetics) –and recording neural activity with a tiny camera in the mouse’s skull!
–Unifying theory (still working on a unifying theory to tie together neural research data)
The Institute has many research projects underway, both exploratory starter projects (“seed grants”) and, well, “Big Ideas”. Since Parkinson’s may have a connection with the brain aging process, I’m excited to learn that one of the “Big Idea” projects is “brain rejuvenation”. The Institute categorizes its projects in these groups:
–NeuroDiscovery: Probing the inner workings of the brain
–NeuroHealth: Keeping our minds strong, rebuilding what’s been lost
–NeuroEngineering: New tools to probe and connect with our minds
Exciting? You bet. Expensive? Yep – even one of those seed grants is around $200k. While the majority of funding nationwide for scientific/medical research comes from the federal government, the challenge is that fed spending has been flat for a decade. Dr. Newsome noted that this shrinking federal budget incentivizes researchers and funding agencies go with the “sure thing” – research far enough along to show favorable results, carried out by older, more established scientists. It’s the philanthropic dollars that fund the “first million” and help with younger scientists and out of the box thinking, said Dr. Newsome.
Hmmm….do I hear my checkbook quivering?