Q&A with Kuan Hong Wang, Ph.D.

Feb. 28, 2019

Kuan Hong WangKuan Hong Wang, Ph.D., joined the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience as a professor at the start of the year. Wang comes to the University of Rochester from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where he served as chief of neural circuits and adaptive behaviors research for over a decade. We sat down with Wang to talk about his research, his love for classical music, and why he is excited to immerse himself in the rich scientific environment at the University.

Del Monte: Why did you decide to come to the University of Rochester?

KHW: The University of Rochester is known for its excellence in research and emphasis on education, and I’m highly excited to come here. I have been doing research for a couple of decades, and my investigations cover a wide spectrum of topics, from the molecular biology of nerve cells to the developmental origin and functional architecture of the brain. While NIMH was a great biomedical research environment for me to start out as an investigator, my program has been growing and has become more cross-cutting. Conducting these innovative types of projects requires extensive interdisciplinary collaboration and there are some limitations to that when working for government agencies. 

Rochester has a great collegial environment and I’m very much looking forward to becoming a part of its scientific community. The collaborative nature of the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience is impressive; the leadership is extremely visionary, with great ambition for moving neuroscience forward. It will be fantastic to work with people in different research areas, from biomedical genetics to cognitive science, and come up with cutting -edge research questions. Another draw is the strong engineering, computer science, and optics departments. These disciplines are necessary for making innovation and progress in neuroscience research. Additionally, the University supports diverse experimental organisms, allowing and encouraging researchers to look at rodent and non-human primate models. Such comparative perspectives are essential for cross-species translation of basic biological discoveries into medical insights and benefits.

I received much of my early research experience at academic institutions, including my B.A. from Harvard, Ph.D. from the University of California San Francisco, and a postdoc at MIT. I really missed working with students after moving to NIMH, so I’m looking forward to again conducting exciting investigations with students from different backgrounds and departments. I love to brainstorm with colleagues and serve as a teacher and mentor to students and staff. Outside of my duties as a professor, I plan to participate in activities that lend themselves to general science outreach and education.

What areas of neuroscience will you focus on at the University of Rochester?

My personal research interest lies in how our complex behaviors are generated from the underlying nervous system. To adaptively interact with a complex and changing environment, our brain needs to select appropriate sensory signals and integrate them with internal goals to control actions. Dysfunctions in this cognitive control process are found in many debilitating psychiatric and neurological conditions such as schizophrenia, autism, neuropathic pain, and addiction. Over the past decade, I have taken on an ambitious research direction to define neural mechanisms of cognitively-controlled motor action, with the hope to identify and investigate a new set of prodromal markers and therapeutic targets for brain disorders. 

My future research will continue to focus on the developmental origins and functional plasticity of brain circuits involved in the cognitive control of sensorimotor functions. How does the cerebral cortex send descending projections to the brainstem and spinal cord to take control of our body? How do the ascending neuromodulatory inputs to the cerebral cortex convey our internal drive and influence cognitive maturation? Can we harness the plasticity of these circuit modules to treat brain disorders? We hope to address these questions by linking the molecular mechanisms regulating circuit formation to the functional logic of circuit organization, using both rodent and primate research models.

A deeper understanding of neural mechanisms underlying cognitive control will help us to identify translational and clinical opportunities. Treatment for a range of brain disorders like intellectual disability, autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia will benefit from our investigation of the functional development of cognitive control circuits. These disorders tend to emerge at different stages in life – congenitally in the case of most intellectual disabilities, but in adolescence or early adulthood in the case of schizophrenia. My hope is that by examining vulnerabilities of the brain in different stages and genetic models we can better understand why symptoms occur when they do and what approaches could potentially help reverse brain deficits.

How did you become interested in neuroscience?

In high school I participated in math and chemistry competitions. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard University I started to become interested in neuroscience. I had a lot of great research opportunities there, which led me to wonder more deeply about the underlying basis of mental activities that we humans have. I thought that I needed to start with something basic, like molecular signal transduction. Then, I gradually expanded the scale of my investigation from nerve cells to neural circuits and behaviors. I feel extremely fortunate that I now have the luxury and freedom to conduct research and get an integrative view into how the brain functions. I believe that neuroscience represents one of the ultimate frontiers in human knowledge.

What do you like to do for fun outside of the lab?

I have always enjoyed all different genres of music, especially classical. Some composers have such an abstract and unique sense of beauty. I think it’s amazing how music can evoke a strong emotional response in people, and how we can enjoy it from an intellectual perspective as well. I also love to hike, ski, and play badminton. And, now that I’m up north in Rochester, I’m looking forward to trying cross country skiing. 

This article appeared in the Winter 2018-2019 issue of NeURoscience.