Dr. Moses Chao.

An Ambitious Agenda

As Dr. Moses Chao Takes the Helm of the Society for Neuroscience, NYU Langone Is Poised to Take Neuroscience Research to New Heights

"I never liked biology when I was growing up," explains Moses Chao, PhD, professor of cell biology, physiology and neuroscience, and psychiatry. It’s a surprising confession, coming as it does from the president-elect of the Society for Neuroscience, whose worldwide membership numbers 40,000. Dr. Chao takes the helm of the premier professional organization in his field at an especially fortuitous time for NYU Langone. In 2009, the Medical Center established its first Neuroscience Institute, thanks to a $100 million gift from the Druckenmiller Foundation. The institute promises to make NYU Langone a leader in translational neuroscience. The following year, Richard Tsien, DPhil, an internationally renowned neuroscientist, who is a member of both the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, was appointed the institute’s first director and the Druckenmiller Professor of Neuroscience. Dr. Tsien arrives in January 2012.

While on the faculty of Cornell University Medical College, Dr. Chao would begin to make his mark. He was studying neurotrophins, a family of proteins that act like a kind of brain nutrient, promoting the health of nerve cells and the connections between them. In the mid-1980s, Dr. Chao cloned the first neurotrophin receptor. Later, he identified a second receptor, the existence of which was a total surprise to the neuroscience community. “It was one of those rare ‘Eureka!’ moments,” he says. With those advances, scientists could understand the signaling by the receptors and determine how neurotrophins carry out their actions. He and others have since shown that these proteins play a key role in the brain’s plasticity (its ability to respond to change) and that alterations in their levels can contribute to a host of neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders.

Dr. Chao joined the faculty of NYU School of Medicine in 1998, continuing his focus on neurotrophins. For years, he’s been looking for ways to use these proteins therapeutically. Early clinical trials for the treatment of neurodegenerative disease proved disappointing, prompting many pharmaceutical companies to abandon this line of research. But not this investigator. “I’m certain,” insists Dr. Chao, “that these proteins could benefit patients with a variety of diseases, including Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, even depression.”

Neurotrophin levels can also be boosted through physical and mental exercises, which Dr. Chao recommends for anyone worried about memory loss or general cognitive decline. “As we grow older, we get more set in our ways. It’s important to do different activities. Novel stimulation is what increases the brain’s plasticity,” notes Dr. Chao, who is a member of the Molecular Neurobiology Program at the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine.

Outside NYU Langone, Dr. Chao donates his time as a scientific advisor to several nonprofit organizations, such as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the Simons Foundation, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital Cancer Center, and the Glaucoma Research Foundation. As president of the Society for Neuroscience, Dr. Chao will work to raise public awareness of brain and nervous system research, garner more support for basic research into neurodegenerative diseases, and reduce gender inequality in the field’s upper echelons. Getting a running start, he has already begun working with former US Representative Patrick Kennedy on a national campaign for neuroscience research that focuses on war veterans with brain and spinal cord injuries.

Dr. Chao’s parents emigrated from China just before the Communist revolution, settling in Minnesota. They named their firstborn child Moses, after the Biblical prophet, who also made an exodus from home. “My parents must have had an ambitious agenda for me, giving me that name,” muses Dr. Chao. As the new leader of the world’s largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to the study of the brain and nervous system, he is one step closer to fulfilling it.

 

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