Annual Message from Our Director

-December 6, 2019-

Ehud Isacoff
Professor of Neurobiology, Molecular and Cell Biology Department
Director, Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute (2013-present) and Berkeley Brain Initiative (2013-present)
Co-director, Weill Neurohub (2019-present)
Evan Rauch Chair in Neuroscience 

This has been an exciting year for the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. In addition to celebrating our 20th anniversary, we are eagerly looking ahead to the future, thanks to our growing community of outstanding researchers and several extraordinary new initiatives and opportunities that will help us create transformative breakthroughs in neuroscience.

The Weill Neurohub launched this year, made possible by a $106 million gift from the Weill Family Foundation, led by philanthropists Joan and Sandy Weill. It unites UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and the University of Washington in an innovative partnership to rapidly accelerate the development of new treatments for diseases and disorders of the brain. The Weill Neurohub will support new interdisciplinary and cross-campus collaborations that combine the scientific and clinical strengths of our institutions, with a focus on new molecular, chemical, and genomic technologies, development of new models for disease, and advances in computation and device engineering. Together, these will enable the discovery of disease mechanisms, the development of new methods for early detection of disease, and for novel therapeutics.

Joan & Sanford I. Weill Hall, named in honor of the generous foundational gift made by Joan and Sandy Weill.

HWNI is at the forefront of UCB’s participation in the Weill Neurohub. I am honored to serve with UCSF’s Stephen Hauser and UW’s Tom Daniel, as one of the co-directors of this novel partnership. HWNI members Dan Feldman, Yang Dan, Andy Dillin, Marla FellerBill Jagust, Na Ji, and Daniela Kaufer form the initial UC Berkeley Working Group that will help design programs. HWNI’s 70 faculty members, their labs, and other researchers will have the opportunity to apply for funding for innovative projects.

The Weill Neurohub will also support graduate students and postdocs. The first and second floors of the Life Sciences Addition building will become the UCB headquarters of the Weill Neurohub, and the building will be renamed Joan & Sanford I. Weill Hall, in honor of this generous foundational gift.

The directions of the Weill Neurohub efforts will be designed in workshops that will kick off in early 2020 and lead to calls for proposals for funding to begin in January 2021. Read our announcement to learn more. Let us all thank Joan and Sandy Weill for their generosity, insightful vision, and support for our ideas, community, and research infrastructure.

2019 also marked the start of other cross-institutional collaborations that will help Berkeley neuroscientists have a greater impact on society. HWNI member Susan Landau was awarded a five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging, expected to total $47 million, to use brain imaging to investigate the effects of lifestyle changes aimed at preventing dementia in a large-scale, multisite clinical trial sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association.

The UCSF-UC Berkeley Schwab Dyslexia and Cognitive Diversity Center was launched this year, thanks to a $20 million gift from Charles Schwab. It will bring together researchers and clinicians from disciplines that include neuroscience, cognitive psychology, education, and public health to study learning differences, develop new interventions, and reduce stigma.

Additionally, UC Berkeley hosted the second annual Aging, Research, and Technology Innovation Summit this year, where researchers, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and healthcare workers came together to discuss cutting-edge research and emerging solutions for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. Ever since HWNI was founded 20 years ago, we have championed the use of interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to solve challenging problems in neuroscience, and we are excited to continue to extend our work beyond institutional and disciplinary boundaries.

Map of aggregated tau in the brain using a PET radio tracer F-18 AV-1451. Tau is deposited in the form of neurofibrillary tangles in this person who has Alzheimer’s disease. The location of tau strongly reflects symptoms and cognitive deficits. Image from the Jagust Lab. 

A cross-section through the outer layers of the brain (bottom), showing how the NexGen 7T fMRI will be able to focus on smaller areas than current 7T scanners.

Many of our members create new tools and technologies to advance neuroscience, and I am delighted to announce that this year we broke ground on a revolutionary new 7T MRI machine, developed by a team led by HWNI member David Feinberg.

It will allow us to visualize brain structure and function at unprecedented resolution — the first non-invasive means of observing activity in individual layers of the cerebral cortex and single cortical column microcircuits. It will dramatically improve our understanding of the brain, how it changes in disease, and the effectiveness of treatments.

Our members and collaborators will be able to use the 7T MRI when it becomes operational by mid-2020.

This year, we also got the terrific news that Corey Goodman, adjunct professor of neuroscience and a co-founder and former director of HWNI, and his wife Marcia Barinaga, intend to bequeath a quarter of their estate to Berkeley Neuroscience, valued around $12.5 million. Half of the bequest will be used to create an endowment for the Neuroscience PhD Program, and the rest will be used for other needs of the institute.

We are tremendously grateful to Corey and Marcia for their incredible support of our institute and students, which will help us fulfill our research and educational mission well into the future.

Corey Goodman

Corey Goodman

Our faculty and their labs are at the core of what we do, and I am thrilled to welcome our newest faculty members: Andrea Gomez (arriving Jan 2020, MCB), Scott Baraban (UCSF), and Karthic Shekhar (Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering). I also want to congratulate our numerous community members who have won awards this year, including Kristin Scott who was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Marty Banks who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences; Rich Ivry and David Schaffer who were elected fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Diana Bautista who received an NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award; and Helen Bateup who was appointed as a Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Investigator. Congratulations to everyone!

Illustration from Frontiers for Young Minds.

Education is a major part of our mission, and I am pleased to share that two of our faculty members were honored with awards for their stellar mentoring and outreach this year. Teresa Puthussery received an award for Outstanding Mentorship of Graduate Student Instructors and Bob Knight won an Award for Education in Neuroscience for his work as a Chief Editor for Frontiers for Young Minds— a journal with articles written by scientists for kids, and reviewed by kids. Bob founded Frontiers for Young Minds, and many of our graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members volunteer with the journal as authors, editors, and mentors. Read our article to learn more. I am so proud of our members’ efforts to educate and excite students and the general public about neuroscience.

We welcomed 12 talented new students to our Neuroscience PhD Program this year, and this cohort is our most diverse class ever. We are committed to continuing to increase the diversity of our community at all levels. Our goals are well aligned with the recent UC Berkeley Strategic Plan, which emphasizes a healthy and equitable campus climate, quality of student experience, and a composition that reflects the full diversity of California. We will continue to discuss these issues with our community and the campus at large, and will work to create a more welcoming, inclusive, and equitable environment where our all of our students, postdocs, faculty, and staff can thrive personally and professionally.

In the coming year, we are looking forward to recruiting new students, expanding our faculty, and taking advantage of the incredible opportunities that our new initiatives, technologies, and partnerships provide. I want to personally give a big thank you to all of our members who have worked to bring us to this point, and who will help us take neuroscience to the next level in the future.