Coming in March
Ngai Named BRAIN Initiative Director
Dr. John J. Ngai, Coates family professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, is the new director of NIH’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. He is expected to join NIH in March.
The NIH BRAIN Initiative is a large-scale effort to accelerate neuroscience. Since it was launched in 2013, the initiative has funded hundreds of research projects that have led to several breakthroughs, including the creation of a self-tuning brain implant that could help treat Parkinson’s disease patients, the development of a computer program that can mimic natural speech from people’s brain signals and the construction of a brain cell inventory. BRAIN-funded researchers have also shown the ability to make high-speed, high-resolution, 3-D films of a nervous system in action.
“Recent technological and scientific advances are transforming our understanding of the brain,” said Ngai. “I am deeply inspired by these advances and look forward to my new role in enabling BRAIN Initiative investigators to unlock the secrets of the brain and lay new foundations for treating human brain disorders.”
He will oversee the long-term strategy and day-to-day operations of the initiative as it takes on the challenges of the next 5-year plan, just announced a few months ago. Congress has enthusiastically supported BRAIN through the appropriations process and the 21st Century Cures Act.
Ngai earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology from Pomona College and Ph.D. in biology from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He was a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech and at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons before starting his faculty position at UC Berkeley.
During more than 25 years as a Berkeley faculty member, Ngai has trained 20 undergraduate students, 24 graduate students and 15 postdoctoral fellows in addition to teaching well over 1,000 students in the classroom. His lab uses a wide array of tools and techniques to study the cells and molecules behind olfaction, or the sense of smell, including fundamental research on how the nervous system detects odors and turns them into neural signals sent to the brain.
Ngai is also interested in unraveling the diversity of cell types in the brain and understanding how the nervous system repairs itself following injury or degeneration. His work has led to the publication of more than 70 scientific articles in some of the field’s most prestigious journals and 10 U.S. and international patents.
He has received many awards including from the Sloan Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience.
As a faculty member, Ngai has served as director of Berkeley’s Neuroscience Graduate Program and Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He has also provided extensive service on NIH study sections, councils and steering groups, including as previous co-chair of the NIH BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Consortium steering group.
NIH BRAIN is managed by 10 institutes whose missions and current research portfolios complement the goals of the initiative.