John Jay Ngai, Ph.D.

Headshot of John Ngai
Senior Investigator and NIH BRAIN Initiative Director
NIH Brain Initiative, Office of The Director

BG 31 RM 8A52

John J. Ngai, Ph.D., is the Director of the NIH’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN®) Initiative. Dr. Ngai earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology from Pomona College, Claremont, California, and Ph.D. in biology from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. He was a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech and at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons before starting his faculty position at the University of California at Berkeley. During more than 25 years as a Berkeley faculty member, Dr. Ngai has trained 20 undergraduate students, 24 graduate students and 15 postdoctoral fellows in addition to teaching well over 1,000 students in the classroom. His work has led to the publication of more than 70 scientific articles in some of the field’s most prestigious journals and 10 U.S. and international patents. Dr. Ngai has received many awards including from the Sloan Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience. As a faculty member, Dr. Ngai has served as the director of Berkeley’s Neuroscience Graduate Program and Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He has also provided extensive service on NIH study sections, councils and steering groups, including as previous co-chair of the NIH BRAIN® Initiative Cell Census Consortium Steering Group. Dr. Ngai oversees the long-term strategy and day-to-day operations of the NIH BRAIN Initiative as it takes on the challenges of the next five year plan.

Education: Pomona College, Claremont, California (B.A. in chemistry and zoology); Harvard Medical School, Boston (Program on Cell and Developmental Biology); California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California (Ph.D. in biology)

Training: Postdoctoral fellow, California Institute of Technology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute/Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (New York)

Before coming to NIH: Professor of Neurobiology, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, and Coates Family Professor of Neuroscience, Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, University of California at Berkeley (Berkeley, California)

Came to NIH: In 2020

Outside interests: Doing photography; enjoying food and wine

The generation of cellular diversity in the nervous system requires the specification and differentiation of a multitude of cell lineages from multipotent progenitor cells. The regulatory programs governing this process remain incompletely characterized, however, in part because of the difficulty in studying neuronal progenitor cells in their native environments. My lab uses the mammalian olfactory epithelium as a model for addressing this challenge.

Primary sensory neurons in the olfactory epithelium are continuously regenerated throughout adult life via the proliferation and differentiation of multipotent neural progenitor cells. Upon severe injury, these adult tissue stem cells are activated and go on to reconstitute all of the cellular constituents of this sensory epithelium. The regenerative capacity of the olfactory epithelium therefore presents a powerful and experimentally accessible paradigm for elucidating the mechanisms regulating neural stem-cell function.

We are using a variety of approaches to unravel the molecular and cellular mechanisms regulating olfactory stem cells and olfactory neurogenesis in the mouse. For example, we use conditional genetic knockouts to investigate the roles of certain transcription factors and intracellular signaling pathways in promoting stem-cell self-renewal, proliferation, and differentiation.

As a complementary approach, we also apply single-cell transcriptomic and single-cell epigenomic analyses to identify the genetic and epigenetic programs that both define and regulate olfactory neurogenesis during regeneration.

Our studies provide a model for understanding the mechanisms regulating neural stem cells and lay the groundwork for the future development of treatments and therapeutics to ameliorate tissue damage and degeneration in the nervous system.