Neuroscientist John Ngai named director of NIH BRAIN Initiative

January 29, 2020
By: Robert Sanders
John Ngai in his lab
John Ngai in his UC Berkeley lab with research technician Shona Allen. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has picked long-time UC Berkeley neuroscientist John Ngai to head its BRAIN Initiative, a multibillion-dollar federal research push to develop new tools that will help scientists understand how the brain works and lead to new treatments for brain dysfunction.

“The BRAIN Initiative aims to revolutionize our understanding of the brain and brain disorders,” said NIH director Francis Collins today (Wednesday, Jan. 29) in announcing the appointment. “We welcome Dr. Ngai’s leadership in steering this groundbreaking 21st century project.”

As director of what formally is the NIH Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, Ngai will help steer about $500 million in research dollars this year to the most promising projects around the country. From 2014, when the first awards were given, through 2019, the initiative distributed $1.3 billion, and it is expected to disperse $5.2 billion by 2025.

“In the first five years of the BRAIN Initiative, we have seen some remarkable advances in technologies for monitoring, as well as for perturbing activity in the brain, some of which have led to new innovations in treating patients with devices such as deep brain stimulators in the areas of epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease,” Ngai said. “By continuing to develop new tools for understanding how the brain works, we hope to provide the basis for future clinical treatments.”

“Dr. Ngai’s appointment comes at a propitious time — as the BRAIN Initiative enters a new and important phase,” said Walter Koroshetz, director of NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). “Dr. Ngai will provide the initiative the clear vision the project needs to navigate through this critical period.”

Ngai, the Coates Family Professor of Neuroscience at UC Berkeley, was a guest of the White House in 2013 when the initiative was first announced and together with nine Berkeley colleagues received one of the first NIH BRAIN Initiative grants to help classify cells in the brain. Over the past five years, the initiative has funded hundreds of research projects nationwide that have led to several breakthroughs, including the creation of systems for studying the circuits involved in generating behavior in animal models, the development of a computer program that can mimic natural speech from people’s brain signals and the construction of a brain cell parts list.

Most of the money comes from the annual budgets of 10 NIH institutes led by the NINDS and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).  Congress has appropriated additional funds each year since the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act in 2013.

Ngai will begin his new position in mid-March, overseeing the long-term strategy and day-to-day operations of the initiative with oversight by the directors of the 10 institutes participating in the BRAIN Initiative. He will retire from UC Berkeley as an emeritus professor and move his lab to new quarters in Bethesda, Maryland, home of the NIH.

Exploring the sense of smell

Ngai first joined the UC Berkeley Department of Molecular and Cell Biology in 1993, after earning his Ph.D. in biology in 1987 from the California Institute of Technology and working as a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons from 1988 until 1992. It was at Columbia, in the lab of future Nobel Laureate Richard Axel, that he initiated his studies of the body’s olfactory system: our sense of smell. At the time, it was one of the last of the five senses to be thoroughly studied, Ngai said, and he applied his training in molecular biology to unearthing the genes involved in receiving and processing information.

John Ngai
Neuroscientist John Ngai was appointed director of the NIH BRAIN Initiative. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

As new tools came along, he probed deeper and has in recent years employed the latest technology, single cell sequencing, to discover all the genes expressed in specific neurons. His latest interest is how the olfactory system repairs itself. As director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute from 2011 to 2013, Ngai helped bring engineers and physical scientists into the institute to join biologists.

“This was the vision that (former UC Berkeley professors) Corey Goodman and Carla Shatz had when they founded the institute in 1999, with the encouragement of then-Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ, now UC Berkeley’s chancellor,” Ngai said. “To drive and accelerate the future of neuroscience requires the development of new tools and the incorporation of ideas from fields outside of biology. The BRAIN Initiative has enabled us to realize that vision in a grand way.”

“John has helped put UC Berkeley in the vanguard of the technology-centered approach that is the focus of the BRAIN Initiative,” said Paul Alivisatos, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor and provost and one of the scientists who helped catalyze early discussions that laid the foundation for the initiative. “This foresight to incorporate our unparalleled strengths in the physical and engineering sciences with our preeminence in neurobiology prepared Berkeley to leverage these new technologies five years ago to accelerate discovery and treatments in the neurosciences. That approach will continue to drive our research in the future.”

Ngai also is director of the Functional Genomics Laboratory in the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, or QB3, a multi-campus initiative that fosters the development of biology as a quantitative, predictive science, with applications in health, energy and the environment. On the national level, Ngai has provided extensive service on NIH study sections, councils and steering groups, including as co-chair of the NIH BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Consortium Steering Group.

Ngai was born in New York City to Chinese immigrants who came to this country in 1947 to complete their medical training. He grew up with his two older sisters just outside of New York City in Teaneck, New Jersey. Science and medicine were the usual topics of conversation over dinner, as his parents were both faculty members at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where his father — a neuroscientist himself — was professor and chair of anesthesiology and his mother a professor of pharmacology. He attended Pomona College in Claremont, California, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and zoology in 1980. His many honors include awards from the Sloan Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience.

Ngai said he will miss UC Berkeley, but is thrilled by the chance to head up one of the nation’s top biomedical priorities.

“For the past 27 years, it has been such an amazing privilege for me to draw inspiration from the brilliant students, colleagues and staff at the world’s greatest public university,” he said. “I will take the lessons I learned here at Berkeley 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. The sky’s the limit.”