UC Berkeley professor to lead National Institutes of Health initiative

Brittany Hosea-Small/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley neurobiology professor John Ngai has been selected to join the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, to lead its Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, Initiative a government-established program aimed at advancing scientists’ understanding of brain function.

As head of the initiative, Ngai will be in charge of the project’s day-to-day operations and allocation of the organization’s funds to research projects nationwide. Ngai will also work with scientists, foundations, industrial partners and Congress to establish a long-term plan for the BRAIN Initiative.

“Dr. Ngai’s skillset is a perfect match for the position,” said Walter J. Koroshetz, director of NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke division, in an email. “He is an accomplished scientist, he has operational awareness of the BRAIN Initiative (and) he is motivated by the desire to facilitate the work going on across the country to better understand how the brain processes information and how this knowledge can be used to diagnose and treat disorders of brain circuits.”

As the world’s largest biomedical research organization, the NIH established the BRAIN Initiative in 2013, aiming to advance neurotechnology and better understand how the brain processes information, according to the NIH press release. These advances will then be used to develop treatments for brain disorders.

Koroshetz added that scientists may also be able to find the exact brain circuit dysfunction behind a neurological disorder and alter the circuits to “normalize” them through the BRAIN Initiative.

“John Ngai has been an incredibly valuable member of the neuroscience teaching and research community here for many years,” said campus neurobiology professor Dan Feldman in an email. “He has been a leader in undergraduate teaching, in graduate training.”

Rebecca Chance, a postdoctoral fellow in Ngai’s lab for over three years, said she was first drawn to the lab by Ngai’s pioneering presence in the field through research funded by the BRAIN Initiative. She added that in the lab, Ngai stays up to date with new technology and is flexible in trying new techniques to gather data.

Ngai will move to NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland to take on his position in March after more than 25 years at UC Berkeley. He intends to continue his research on identifying the different cell types in the brain and the regeneration of neurons in the olfactory system, which governs the sense of smell, as part of the NIH intramural research program.

“I will miss my beloved Berkeley and all of its wonderful students, staff and my faculty colleagues, but I’m both thrilled and humbled by this new opportunity to lead what I think is one of the most exciting and promising initiatives in the biomedical sciences today,” Ngai said in an email.

Emma Rooholfada is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.