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Brains Behind the Institute

Ada Poon, Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute

Ada Poon

Associate professor of electrical engineering

When my father got cancer, I felt helpless.

I had just finished my PhD in one of the most radical branches of electrical engineering—information theory—and I had taken a job working in industry, at my former advisor’s startup. We had developed a wireless cable replacement, a data link that connects a setup box to a high-definition TV, the same technology that’s now applied to 5G. The company was doing well—we raised $18 million in our first round of fundraising—but the technology we built didn’t resonate with me.

One day, looking at the spot on my wall that my TV cable was hidden behind, I realized I didn’t want to spend the next 10 years of my career making a cable replacement cheaper and faster. I wanted to do research with medical applications.

So I returned to academia to do biomedical research, looking for interesting problems to which I could contribute my expertise and skills. In the end, I decided to miniaturize electronics to implant them close to organs or nerves where they could perform therapeutic actions, such as helping control blood pressure. The device I developed was the size of a grain of rice, and two or three companies licensed it.

But I still wanted to focus on treating a disease, not only on building technologies. Through exploring treatments for early-stage memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease, I became interested in neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and make new connections. The more I studied memory, I was intrigued to realize that neuroplasticity could actually be trained through non-invasive interventions such as the practice of meditation. Now, I’m looking for biomarkers to create a way to measure the effects of meditation, similar to existing gadgets that can already give us feedback on our cardiovascular health. I hope this tool can eventually help everyone become more aware of how to improve and benefit from their brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity.

We’re still many steps away from this ultimate goal. But as I tell my students, the projects I’m interested in are those where we don’t know the solutions and may have to learn how to ask new questions along the way. To be fearless in science, you have to just take a breath and then go ahead and do it.

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