UCSF Aims To Re-Think Neuroscience Research With Its New Building

The Joan and Sanford Weill Neurosciences Building at UCSF Mission Bay. Photo credit: Kyle Jefferes

Modern day science tends to be highly interdisciplinary. It increasingly requires different technical topics, skills, and expertise to come together to solve complex and challenging problems and questions. The image of the isolated scientist working alone in their lab for periods on end, emerging only to share a great discovery with the world, is somewhat antiquated. To be sure, doing science even today still necessitates long periods of deep thinking, introspection, and figuratively (occasionally literally) banging your head against the wall. But the tangible output of one’s efforts are almost always a piece that fits into a broader scientific context. Collaborators may be working on other parts of the same problem, with everyone’s work eventually converging into a coherent whole. Or a solution may only emerge as a byproduct of collective brainstorming or the sharing of ideas. All of this, is to say, requires much and very tangible human-human interactions.

The environments — the building, labs, and offices — on university campuses in which all of this research takes place more and more reflect the need to serve these requirements. Architecture, art, and science are progressively more intertwined. Science is, after all, a very social pursuit. The research and public spaces that make up modern universities can be spectacular.

This is the path the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) is attempting to take with the newly opened Joan and Sanford Weill Neurosciences Building. Located on their Mission Bay campus, at just under 283,000 square feet, the building brings together clinical and basic neuroscience treatment and research under one roof. The Departments of Neurology, Neurological Surgery, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, along with the Weill Institute for Neurosciences and the Neuroscience Graduate Program, will all be housed in this building.

To make this possible, Joan and Sanford Weill made a gift of $185 million to the university, the largest gift in UCSF’s history and one of the largest such donations in the country intended to specifically support neuroscience.

Dr. Stephen Hauser, the Robert A. Fishman Distinguished Professor of Neurology and Director of the Weill Institute for Neurosciences, offered his thoughts on the vision for the building and what it will enable.

What was the intended ‘vision’ for the building and what do you hope it will achieve? Both scientifically and societally.

S.H.: We envisioned the building as a place where patients with difficult brain diseases receive care, where scientists search for answers to these problems, where young people will be inspired to dedicate themselves to careers in research and care, and a building that will also be a magnet for the community to promote interest in neuroscience.

We also needed a building that radiates hope, that reflects the optimism that we feel for the future. More than 60,000 patients annually will be seen in the clinical center, and here a variety of decision support tools and displays for precision medicine have been developed to assist patients and clinicians in tracking individual disease trajectories, contextualizing an individual’s function relative to others, and providing evidence-based decision support.

Another key theme was that by breaking down silos across disciplines — across scientific disciplines and even across institutions — we could accelerate research to find answers to terrible brain disorders that affect more than 1 billion people each year. As one example, the distinctions between “neurologic” and “psychiatric” disorders of the brain are largely accidents of history, and importantly the same research tools are increasingly used to understand these disorders. So we brought these together. Also, we needed to bring other scientific disciplines, such as engineering, data sciences and imaging sciences, into our neuroscience community to maximize the potential for discovery.

What is perhaps most central is that the research mission will focus on human neuroscience and real human disease. By bringing together outstanding clinician-researchers with basic scientists, ideas gained at the laboratory can rapidly be validated at the bedside, and vice versa. So, a facility that will stimulate this interaction is the secret sauce of the building.

Another goal for this building is to excite the wider community with the exhilarating progress in brain science. What could be more interesting or more important than thinking about how we think? The big ethical issues that are likely to face us in the coming years are by no means restricted to neuroscience, but it’s in neuroscience that many of these questions come into sharpest focus, whether it be questions of enhancing cognitive or motor skills, computer brain interfaces and the creation of machine-human chimeras, the privacy of our thoughts, or the appropriate use of neuroscience data by the legal system. The stuff of science fiction is soon to become real.

What makes this building, and the environment it will create, unique to do neuroscience research compared to other state of the art buildings at other institutions?

S.H.: I don’t think that there is another facility anywhere in the world quite like this — anchored in a huge medical and neuroscience community, focused on the neuroscience of human beings and human disease, and that brings clinical care and clinical research on the real diseases under the same roof as the basic lab investigations.

What is unique about the building and the environment it will create that you anticipate will lead to work and results — e.g. discoveries, technologies — that could not be achieved outside that environment?

S.H.: One of the most exciting developments has been recognition from others who share this vision and have joined us in new partnerships. One superb example is the Weill Neurohub, a close partnership across the neurosciences between UCSF, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Washington. Another is a large 10 year partnership recently launched with Genentech and Roche, the Alliance for Therapies in Neuroscience, to jointly work together on problems in brain science and development of therapeutics.

Mark Cavagnero, Founding Principal at Mark Cavagnero Associates, the architecture firm that designed the building, provided his perspective on what it took to physically design and build a space that fulfilled UCSF’s vision.

MC: Dr. Hauser’s goals were numerous and complex, though interconnected. It is the interconnected nature of all these goals that gives the building its unique form and singular presence.

The first challenge was to plan and design a building that integrates both clinical care for patients and state of the art research labs for scientists. The ability for scientists to both see patients and participate in their research projects in the same building on the same day was pivotal. The building goals were to not just envision this new form of integrated clinical care and scientific research, but to create a new form of architectural expression which presents that sensibility to everyone who sees it. We needed to fully understand the goal of creating a destination building- a destination for patients, for scientists, for science itself. It was never considered a secure bunker for research, but always seen as a transparent center for ideas, ideas grounded in progress, care, and hope.

How did you balance the aesthetics of the building with its technical and scientific requirements?

M.C. In making a building that attracts young people to dedicate themselves to research and care careers and to be a magnet for the community in a way to promote neuroscience and to radiate hope- the building needed to be beautiful from every angle. I wanted the building to change its feel slightly depending on your vantage point, your angle of view. Beauty is timeless and its own source of wonderment and joy; so creating a building of beauty was a strong desire.

As we understood these goals more and more clearly, it became clear that the building needed to have a unique clarity to it. The building needed to express the rational permanence of science with the all-too- human dynamism of nature. Bringing science and nature, rational thought and human emotion into each space was our challenge. Bringing both sides of the brain into one’s awareness of the environment seemed exciting to me, to simultaneously fulfill the needs for abstract thought and tactile perception and feeling.

The human nature of socialization, of impromptu meeting and spontaneous discussion was also discussed at length. Scientists of different background can meet over coffee, lunch, in a meeting room, in a lounge or on the roof terrace overlooking the campus. Excitement and research updates can be shared quickly and personally, with interaction made so easy. The human side of research, once again, is being given great priority. The screens temper the dry and wet labs only. The clinical care and social spaces where scientists mingle- all are clear and exposed to the community. The essential human quality of this endeavor is made manifest even if the research has a veil of protection over it.

The reception from the faculty occupying the new space has been positive. Dr. Riley Bove, Associate Professor of Neurology, expressed how “this new environment will be transformational in allowing our work in digital and precision medicine to become a reality for patients seen in the neuropsychiatry clinics. Across our institution, there have been a number of pivotal studies validating the ability to digitally phenotype patients, remotely engage and monitor individuals, and apply complex algorithms to understand human behavior, imaging, and biosamples. To date, individuals including clinicians, engineers, psychologists, physicists, and geneticists have often worked in siloes, focusing on a specific tool, insight, or condition. The new Institute is an opportunity for researchers who have worked on siloed aspects of this research to come together — and thread all the rich insights and data back into the clinic in simple, relevant formats, to impact clinical care.”

For Dr. Mercedes Paredes, also an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology, who studies perinatal brain development, a critical period immediately before and after birth that can impact neurodevelopmental disorders such as epilepsy or autism spectrum disorder, the “building that will bring diverse expertise in neuroscience including leaders in cutting edge CRISPR technology, developmental bioinformatic gurus, and neuropathologists and neonatologists.” She went on to explain how “having this multidisciplinary perspective together will accelerate collaboration and discoveries across many fields. I also think it’s special to have this adjacent to the clinical work, in the hopes that each side of the bench-clinic can inspire one another.”

Dr. Edward Chang, Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery said that the new building “is an extraordinary environment for carrying out our research on human brain neural computations. The generous natural light, high ceilings, and open space layout achieve a perfect balance.”

Similar comments were made by the other departments who have faculty moving into the new building. Dr. Matthew W. State, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences said the “building places the basic science of psychiatry literally in the heart of the outstanding UCSF neuroscience community. It advances our shared mission at UCSF of breaking down the arbitrary barriers that have historically separated psychiatry from neurology, neurosurgery and other medical and scientific fields that focus on the brain.” And for S. Andrew Josephson, Chair of Neurology, the “new building’s combination of laboratories, clinical research facilities, and computational centers combined with patient-based clinical care including state-of-the-art imaging and neuroinfusion positions us to quickly translate discoveries into therapies for a group of disorders that urgently need solutions.”

It is evident that the new building was architecturally and aesthetically carefully designed to allow the interaction of clinical and basic neuroscience research and care to take place in a harmonious way under one impressive space. It feels like science and medicine taking place literally inside a work of art. Of course, only time will tell how the new building and the work that will take place within will differ from other similar efforts at universities across the world — which no doubt provides challenging competition. Yet, the new UCSF building seems almost purposefully designed to allow the imagination and creativity of its occupants to thrive. Which is after all what is necessary to truly understand and treat the brain.

This article was originally published on Forbes.com. You can check out this and other pieces written by the author on Forbes here.

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Gabriel A. Silva

Gabriel A. Silva

Professor of Bioengineering and Neurosciences, University of California San Diego