At 44, Stanford bioengineer/neuroscientist Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, has achieved more success and accolades than most scientists receive in their lifetime. Two techniques, optogenetics and CLARITY, which open the brain to deeper and more penetrating explorations of its complexity, are among his seminal achievements. In November, he was awarded the prestigious 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which comes with a no-strings attached monetary award of $3 million, and I sat down to talk with him for a 1:2:1 podcast shortly after he won.
Great scientific leaps, which optogenetics and CLARITY have been universally hailed as, are often preceded by challenges and detours that ferment doubt in the head of even the most determined researcher. And such was the case with optogenetics. Deisseroth told me there were arched eyebrows and skepticism from others during his quest. And he gave insight on how someone can keep those doubts at bay and remain focused on the endgame when their vision may not be shared or understood by others.
Deisseroth calls the human brain “the most complicated object in the universe.” So complicated, he says, that truly understanding its wiring and why and how it goes awry will take decades. “We don’t know what the finish line will look like,” he told me. “There [are] so many mysteries.”
Deisseroth’s track in neuroscience and medicine began in college, but from early on, as part of a family in which books and reading were venerated, words and creative writing were a strong interest. He told me, “I was just enthralled by how words could make you feel, how the emotions that could come from the words sometimes was independent of their formal meaning… I was so intrigued by their power to sway the mind and to uplift. Without making too sweeping of a claim, I also think that part of what got me interested in the brain is understanding how something like that could happen.”
So why psychiatry? What led him to that path, I asked? He said that he “trudged” into a psychiatry rotation as it was a required part of Stanford’s curriculum, but on the first day a passion was ignited:
There was a patient who was really on the inpatient ward, and really not doing well. This patient more or less accosted me. There was an interaction where there was just a stream of psychotic words and sentences directed at me, rageful, angry, loose in its framing and construction, very hard to understand, but in a way, there was a communicative effect achieved.
Although the words and the sentences didn’t mean anything relating to reality, there was definitely a communication that was achieved. I was so interested in understanding, from that moment, how an otherwise intact person could have a reality that was so different and could communicate in such an unconventional way.
It really hit all parts of me at once. It hit my interest in words and writing, my interest in neuroscience, and my desire to help people in the most direct way I could.
I started to look more into psychiatry, and I saw the opportunities, the depth of the mysteries, the extent of the suffering. It was like all the pieces of a combination lock clicking into place all at once.
We delved into numerous topics during our conversation. Why is the brain such a difficult organ to understand? How were optogenetics and CLARITY adding to the collective wisdom to the field? Why is the stigma of mental illness so pervasive and persistent? And, if he could answer any one question about the brain and a psychiatric disorder, what would it be? I hope you’ll listen to the podcast and hear his responses.
Previously: Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth talks about the work he was “destined to do”, Stanford bioengineer Karl Deisseroth wins 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, Inside the brain of optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth, Lightning strikes twice: Optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth’s newest technique renders tissues transparent, yet structurally intact and An in-depth look at the career of Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth, “a major name in science”
Photo, of Karl Deisseroth receiving his Breakthrough Prize, by Steve Jennings/Getty Images