A Q&A about the future of Stanford neuroscience

As the Stanford Neurosciences Institute relaunches under a new name – the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute – Clara Wu Tsai and institute director William Newsome talk about the future of brain science at Stanford.

The Stanford Neurosciences Institute is changing its name to the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute in recognition of investment from Stanford alumna Clara Wu Tsai and her husband, Joe Tsai. (Read the announcement here.) To learn more about what drew Wu Tsai to support the neurosciences at Stanford, William Newsome, a professor of neurobiology and the Vincent V. C. Woo Director of the Neurosciences Institute, sat down with Wu Tsai to discuss her interest in neuroscience and her vision for the future.

Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai

William Newsome, director of the newly renamed Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, and Stanford alumna Clara Wu Tsai. (Image credit: Eric Koziol)

Newsome: You were an undergraduate at Stanford. You have a bachelor’s degree in international relations. Clara, what drew you to the neurosciences?

Wu Tsai: I’ve been interested and motivated by exploration and discovery my entire life. Our scientists have been to space and they’ve been to the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean floor.

The brain is another frontier; yet we know so little about the brain. I think the brain is probably the most complex structure in the universe. Not only does it control most of our bodily functions, but it also gives rise to the way we think, the way we feel, the way we make decisions, our emotional life. So why would we not want to know everything that’s possible about the human brain?

Fortunately, with the advent of new technology, particularly in brain imaging and in bioengineering, in combination with basically the explosion in computational power, I feel like we’re really able now to create these tools that will accelerate discoveries in the brain. That’s essentially why I’m so excited about neuroscience and all the discoveries that I think are going to come out of it in the next 10 years.

Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute named for Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai

The Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute has been named for a gift from alumna Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai.

Newsome: You’ve been to many academic institutions involved in neuroscience research. What do you see as the unique advantages that Stanford brings to bear in the neurosciences? What can we do here that’s actually difficult to do in other places?

Wu Tsai: I think Stanford is really at the forefront of a lot of disciplines that are critical to brain discovery. There are a few things in particular that I can point out. Number one, disciplinary excellence in, particularly, physics, engineering, computer science, statistics, psychology, medicine. Number two, we have a campus where these disciplines and the School of Medicine are really in close proximity. And third, Stanford already has a very established culture of interdisciplinary collaboration. So I think those three things make Stanford a very special place to do brain research.

I would also say that Stanford’s proximity to Silicon Valley coupled with strengths in physics and engineering are going to enable Stanford to play a leading role in neuroscience-inspired artificial intelligence. Those are things that I’m really excited about. I hope Stanford is able to leverage its unique strengths to make transformative breakthroughs.

Newsome: What kind of future impacts, very tangible, do you hope that we can achieve in the neurosciences at Stanford?

Wu Tsai: Naturally, I hope that research undertaken at Stanford will lead to therapies, cures and treatments that impact millions of people. Specifically, I’m very interested in early detection of neurodegenerative diseases. I would love to be able to define these diseases based on biological signs like brain changes as opposed to symptoms. It would be great to be able to identify these diseases before symptoms appear and I’d really love to be able to halt the progression of these diseases instead of treating symptoms.

Newsome: As you know, the primary mission of the Institute is research and it’s what we focused on in our first five years, but an equally important mission is education and figuring out how to educate the next generation of neuroscientists. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that.

Wu Tsai: I think it’s very important, and as an educational institution, I think it should be front and center of what we’re trying to do with the Institute. For me, the scientists of the future are people who are really comfortable working with other disciplines, they understand all the new tools and technologies available to them, and they collaborate very effectively. To me, I think we should be training our postdocs and students to feel comfortable taking high-risk, high-reward research projects and to really adopt a mindset around undertaking research  with a purpose of discovery and impact on human lives.

Newsome: Many neuroscientists are starting to think about the brain as a very powerful computer. How do you see the worlds of neuroscience and computer science coming together in the future?

Wu Tsai: I think understanding the biological brain should help us build more intelligent machines. Clearly the way the human brain processes information, if applied and translated correctly, should help us build machines that are more efficient and more intuitive. Essentially, neuroscience really could be the source of inspiration for a whole new set of algorithms and architectures. In fact, understanding biological intelligence and what comes out of that could also be a way to validate current artificial intelligence techniques and ultimately also help us determine where resources in that field should be applied.

Newsome: Clara, your magnificent gift is going to support a lot of basic research on the brain, in addition to some translational research. Why is basic research important to you?

Wu Tsai: Basic research is important in an instance when you know so little about a subject. I remember when I first joined the Stanford Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Council, one of the first questions I wanted to ask is, what’s the moonshot to cure Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease? That’s exactly what we should be focused on as a nation and as an institute, right?

But then I quickly realized after listening to scientists speak about their research that we’re nowhere close to a moonshot. It goes back to how little we know about the brain. There are so many pieces to unravel before we can even get to a hypothesis to inform a moonshot, and this is why we need to undertake basic research. Ideally, we conduct basic research with a focus, and hopefully we can assess the progress of the research we do by rigorously holding it up against questions that we’re trying to answer. In any case, we still need to undertake basic research for the sake of fundamentally understanding how the brain works.

Newsome: Ten to 20 years from now, what would you like the legacy of the institute to be?

Wu Tsai: Of course, I hope that Stanford has had its hand in transformative breakthroughs that have led to cures and therapies that basically prolong our lives and make them more fulfilling and productive. But that aside, I hope that we’re known for breakthrough discoveries, collaboration, innovation, use of technology and a proactive stance on translation into practical applications. And I really also hope that we’re known as a great place for training future scientists of the world.

Newsome is also the Harman Family Provostial Professor.