Highlighted Researcher in TMU Neuroscience: Dr. Tzu-Jen Kao, Developmental Neuroscientist
Dr. Tzu-Jen Kao
Dr. Kao studied biology at Baylor University in Texas, earned his PhD in Biomedical Science at the University of South Carolina, and completed postdoctoral work at McGill University in Montreal. He’s been teaching and researching at TMU for four years, and holds an Assistant Professorship at the Program for Neural Regenerative Medicine and the Center for Neurotrauma and Neuroregeneration. To find more about Dr. Kao, please click HERE
How would you define neuroscience?
It’s a really broad topic. Traditionally people think neuroscience is only related to the brain and spinal cord, but it’s related to other parts of the body, like controlling heartbeat, breathing, all the muscles, things like that. So neuroscience nowadays is more multidisciplinary. It’s getting popular because and people are trying to collaborate, trying to link the function of how the brain or spinal cord can control these other parts.
And what’s developmental neuroscience?
You can start from the very beginning of the different mental stages, like the embryonic stage, how brain and spinal cord develop. Because once all the networks are differentiated, the neuronal types are set for life and they don’t divide any further. So understanding how the brain is structured and how the networks are formed to properly control the different parts of body is very important. That’s why I’m studying developmental biology.
How did you first get interested in neuroscience?
When I decided to start my life science career, [it was] either cancer or neuroscience, because I knew it’s realistic to get funding. But unfortunately, at the beginning of my PhD studies all the neuroscience labs, all of the cancer labs, the faculty weren’t taking new students. So that’s how I chose biology. They also study calcium, which is a very important source for neurons to make action potentials to transmit information from one [cell] to the other.
I was thinking, okay, maybe that’s one way to compromise. I studied the same molecules, the same pathways, but a different system. So after that … I really want to go to these two labs. So I’m when I’m submitting my resumes, I only choose the cancer lab or the neuroscience lab. That’s why I found my postdoc position at McGill.
What kinds of work and research are you doing at TMU now? Are there applications for your work?
The main topic is the guidance process during the stages of neural development. I’m doing a very fundamental part of the studies but how you can apply that is also very interesting. For example, I studied how nerves can grow to the proper targets, like how a neuron can bind to a muscle target so you don’t misinterpret the signals. This happens at the very early stages of embryonic development.
But what happens is when the spinal cord or brain get injured, those molecules [that guide nerve growth] will have abnormal expression at a very high level. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons for the inhibition of the regeneration of the nerves.
We found that in some neurodegenerative disease, the patients experience abnormally high levels of those molecules, and the earlier [this starts] affects the onset of disease and how bad it will progress. If we know the molecular mechanisms underlying the pathways, that can also help us to find a treatment of those diseases.
In addition to that, there are also cancer studies. During metastasis of the cancer cells, they also expressed high levels of those guidance molecules. Through the interaction between the receptor and cues, that can facilitate or increase the probability of metastasis. So we sort of use on the guidance system as a model to study this, and the by knowing more about the molecular mechanisms, this can help us to fight cancers or neurodegenerative disease.
What other kinds of neuroscience research is happening at TMU that’s interesting to you?
I think we have a good history [with] traumatic brain injury studies. We have established the labs here since Dr. Wen-Ta Chiu (TMU President from 20 years ago) studied the essentialness of wearing helmets when you ride a motorcycle. It’s one of the big advantages of our neuroscience related studies at TMU.
Another thing is cognitive neuroscience, led by Lan-Ting (Dr. Timothy Joseph Lane, Dean of the College of Humanities in Medicine and Director of the Brain, Mind and Consciousness program). I think he’s doing a really good job.
And then, of course, there’s field of AI. It’s more like designing software that can help us to pull the data from a big database. In this way it can help the doctors to prescribe drugs and find the proper treatment. They can rely on powerful software to analyze according to the symptoms and medical histories of the patients.
Would you have any advice for prospective students who are interested in neuroscience?
I would say it’s still a very hot topic. People still don’t know too much about, for example, the mechanisms of the brain. And also there are many neurodegenerative diseases that we still didn’t find a cure [for]. We can use drugs to prolong life span of the patients but [neurodegenerative disease] is not reversible. So I think they is still a lot of potential for all the students to start if they’re interested in neuroscience.
Do you have any other thoughts about neuroscience at TMU?
I think neuroscience is for the future. The schools are going to recruit more faculty in the neuroscience field to join either our programs or other departments. I would say the future it’s very bright, and also the funding situation is pretty generous in our field. So I’m thinking I won’t lose my job in the next 10 years or so! [Laughs]
I think in the long run if you have better foundations [in basic research] that can help you in the future. That’s what I’m doing. I hope to do more basic science and help people in the long run.
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