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Brains Behind the Institute

Anne Brunet, Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute

Anne Brunet

Michele and Timothy Barakett professor of genetics

When I started my lab at Stanford, focusing on aging, the field was somewhat controversial. 

Some people viewed aging as just a matter of unavoidable wear and tear, not a process that could be regulated. But because I’d worked on a molecular pathway key to a new understanding of aging, I thought there was more to uncover.

Focusing on aging in my lab was risky. First, when you open a lab, you usually concentrate on an expertise you’ve acquired as a postdoc. I had studied the mechanisms of neuronal death as a postdoc, which can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Aging was very exciting to me because instead of studying the specific symptoms of the disease, I could study something closer to its root cause and understand how brains age. But changing fields when setting up a lab is risky because you have to also develop a new set of expertise.

Second, at that time, the scientific community believed that because animals are so different, with wide-ranging lifespans, it wouldn’t be possible to identify animal models for studying aging processes that might apply across species. 

At Stanford, I found it freeing that people actually embraced these risks. When I started working with new animal models such as the African killifish, a vertebrate with an immune system like ours, I got positive feedback instead of pushback about the value of this animal model or questions about changing fields. Stanford’s environment, where you can assess new areas of research in a unique way, helps you discover things more quickly. And you never know which discovery will end up being more important than the others.

Recently, we published a paper on how killifish embryos can stay in a state of suspended animation called diapause to survive eight months of extreme drought every year. Suspended animation may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but nature has it in several forms, such as hibernation or this embryonic diapause. Killifish only live four to six months once they’ve developed, but as embryos in this state of suspended animation they can stay alive for even longer—months if not years. Relative to our lifespan, this would be like a human embryo being able to go into suspended animation for hundreds of years! Interestingly, not everything in killifish biology is paused during diapause—many genes are in fact switched on to keep the embryos in that state. This highlights one of the things that intrigues me about aging and life: Things are never static.

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