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William Newsome appointed to lead Stanford's new interdisciplinary neuroscience institute

William Newsome, a professor of neurobiology, says Stanford's new institute will launch a "broad, sustained interdisciplinary attack on solving the problems of the brain."

Brie Linkenhoker

William T. Newsome

William T. Newsome, a professor of neurobiology, has been appointed to direct Stanford's new interdisciplinary neuroscience institute, Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research, announced today. The campus-wide brain research initiative will catalyze new interdisciplinary collaborations at the boundaries of neuroscience and a broad array of disciplines.

"The study of the brain is no longer, if it ever was, just a problem of biology. Traditionally trained biologists, like myself, are generating massive new data sets made possible by new technologies, but we frequently don't know the best way to analyze them," Newsome said.

"We need theoreticians trained in applied physics, statistics and engineering to help understand what the data mean, and we need molecular biologists and geneticists to contribute even more tools for precise manipulation of neural circuits.

"Clinicians, lawyers, educators and ethicists will contribute creatively to applying what we learn. We need to bring new minds to the conversation to think in fundamentally new ways about what kind of experiments it makes sense to do in this age of rapid technological advances."

Stanford University, Newsome said, is particularly well positioned to tackle the challenge. There are more than 100 neuroscientists at Stanford, distributed among 14 departments. The institute has been discussed for more than a year, but a framework for encouraging interdisciplinary brain research already exists; organizations such as Bio-X NeuroVentures and the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences (SINTN) have been providing support and seed funding for adventurous neuroscience projects for the past several years.

"We are delighted that Bill Newsome has agreed to take on this directorship," Arvin said. "Bill is an internationally renowned neuroscientist who has contributed many remarkable insights about the fundamental brain processes of decision making; that is, how brain circuits compute risk and reward.

"His research uses an elegant combination of computation, behavior and physiology to examine how the firing of nerve cells in the brain correlates and even predicts behavior. This is one of the most challenging of all questions in neuroscience, and has already led to key insights that are relevant not only for building a systems-and-circuit understanding of consciousness but also for the growing field of neuroeconomics.

"Bill's understanding and appreciation of neuroscience research runs the full spectrum from molecules to behavior. He has embraced Stanford's interdisciplinary approach to attacking complex neuroscience problems and has facilitated cutting-edge research across the campus as director of the Bio-X NeuroVentures program. We are privileged that he will now bring his talents as a broad, innovative thinker and leader toward building this new institute for neurosciences at Stanford."

Lloyd Minor, the Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, is similarly optimistic about Newsome's knack for fostering exciting cross-discipline research.

"Bill is an extraordinary researcher and scholar. He is a creative thinker and wonderful at promoting collaboration and collegiality," said Minor, a professor of otolaryngology. "He excels at bringing people together from all stages of research, from theoretical to experimental to clinical to technology transfer, and creating new and exciting developments. I'm really enthusiastic about him leading this new institute.

"We have extraordinary faculty, and when we provide opportunities for them to convene and collaborate in new ways, good results always follow. The School of Medicine will play an important and collaborative role in making sure the new institute succeeds in phenomenal ways. With his leadership, Stanford's outstanding neuroscience programs will achieve even higher levels of preeminence."

With university-level support for the new institute, Newsome said, Stanford's excellent foundation can be leveraged to establish new collaborative research communities and new sources of support.

"Where else can you find world-class psychology, clinical research, computer science, biology, physics, neuroscience and engineering departments all within 200 yards of each other?" Newsome said. "The membranes that divide the usual academic structures are porous at Stanford, and great ideas and people pass between schools and departments on a regular basis. We want to make that easier and happen more often so we can launch a broad, sustained interdisciplinary attack on solving the problems of the brain."

A committee of faculty leaders has been planning the institute's make-up for more than a year, and has identified six major research themes that will form the backbone of the effort:

  • The "Language" of the Brain: Cracking the Neural Code
  • Enhancing the Brain: Brain-Machine Interfaces and Neuromodulation
  • Understanding Human Thought: Decisions, Memory and Emotion
  • The Brain in Disease: Neurological and Psychiatric Disorders
  • The Changing Brain: Development, Learning and Aging
  • Neuroscience for Society: Education, Law and Business

One of Newsome's first efforts will be to meet with faculty from various departments that have a stake in current neuroscience research at Stanford, as well as with faculty and departments who are new to the field, to discuss how they might get involved.

"I think most people will be able to look at these six initiatives and see where they fit in, but we'll need interdisciplinary leadership to determine where the best research opportunities lie," he said. Which of these areas of study take flight will depend somewhat on the scientific opportunities that emerge, and where faculty and students band together to work cooperatively on an important research goal.

The new institute, which will be incubated in Bio-X's Clark Center, will seek to attract new faculty – the "glue people" Newsome describes as having a foot in neuroscience while coming from another discipline, in order to catalyze novel interactions between current faculty and make new and different science possible. Another major focus will involve raising funds to support young researchers, specifically graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who may already have a degree or PhD in a relevant discipline but want to learn neuroscience.

"Our educational initiatives will fundamentally be about giving students and postdocs the freedom to cross disciplines and learn a new field, so their own independent research careers will add greater richness to study of the brain," Newsome said. "They'll be the young faculty of tomorrow."

Newsome was recently named the Harman Family Provostial Professor; he holds a courtesy appointment in psychology and is the director of the Bio-X NeuroVentures program. Last week, he was enlisted to co-lead the working group for President Obama's $100 million BRAIN initiative, which also will seek interdisciplinary solutions to unraveling the mysteries of the brain.