How does the human brain guide our behavior, decisions and experience of reality? This question drives almost all of the research and curiosity of Kenneth Kishida, PhD, associate professor of translational neuroscience and neurosurgery.
When Dr. Kishida, a native of Sacramento, California and a first-generation college student, first enrolled as an undergraduate at University of California, Davis, his goal was simply to graduate and ‘get a good job.’ During his freshman year, that notion quickly changed when Kishida became introduced to molecular biology and the processes that impact and dictate basic brain function.
Three key factors drove Dr. Kishida’s interest in neuroscience: philosophical questioning, life in the lab and watching classmates deal with depression and substance use disorder. He loved the experience of inquiring and discovering new knowledge through experimentation and was inspired by the intellectual culture of the laboratory where he could discuss the scientific literature and philosophical implications of the latest results with senior scientists and graduate students.
Now, Dr. Kishida has his own lab – the Neuroscience of Consciousness and Choice Lab – where he focuses on pioneering work that investigates the neurocomputational mechanisms underlying human behavior and conscious experience. To aid in his research, Dr. Kishida and his team use innovative technology that he developed and that allows direct ultrafast measurements of neurochemical signals in the human brain during awake brain surgery. Additionally, his team uses computerized behavioral tasks and non-invasive brain imaging technologies to investigate how the human brain works and the choices and experiences that follow. Get to know him in his own words.
What made you want to get involved in how the human brain functions/decision-making?
My line of study and research has always been driven by two fundamental questions about consciousness and free will – “How do we come to have conscious experiences?” and “Why does it feel like we have free will (the ability to determine our own choices)?”
I’ve always been interested in these questions and my experiences in academic work and my personal life really refined these broad questions into the biomedically relevant focus that I have today.
Coming out of college, I initially thought I could study the molecular and genetic mechanisms underlying conscious experience in a model organism, but eventually realized that we actually did not understand the processes well enough in humans to properly study them in model systems. Thus, I decided after earning my PhD to dedicate my time and energy into studying humans.
What current research are you working on?
We have recently discovered that the neurotransmitter dopamine provides an important learning signal (on sub-second timescales) in humans. We also discovered that this signal can be described by a specific mathematical equation that relates changes in dopamine levels to our choices and subjective feelings.
We’re working on understanding how this mathematical model, the behaviors that we think it describes, and the dopamine signals that we think are bounds to the behaviors via the model, may characterize individual differences in how our feelings are affected by positive and negative consequences.
This foundation also allows us to pursue investigations into how these processes might be altered in patients with different combinations of psychiatric and neurologic conditions.
For example, patients with Parkinson’s disease (PD) are suffering because they are losing their dopamine neurons. Nearly half of these patients also suffer from depression. Currently, we are investigating whether depression in these patients (with PD) is the same as depression in patients without PD. We are also investigating the mechanisms that relate dopamine levels to specific symptoms associated with these diseases – changes in one’s feelings, such as depression, and changes in one’s ability to control their movement.
Where do you hope to take your research next?
The vast majority of discovery neuroscience research is conducted on relatively small samples of human participants. This restricts our ability to understand the full spectrum of what ‘human brains’ and ‘human behaviors’ look like.
I would like to take our research to a larger scale of human studies that is more comparable to the scale of multi-site clinical trials. I want to do this to broaden our understanding of human brain function, to be more inclusive of the full spectrum of the humans that we care for in our healthcare systems.
In achieving this, I expect to discover and characterize features of human experience and behavior that will lead to better insights about what makes human experiences unique and how we may better manage the diverse ways that humans suffer and struggle as patients in our care.
Practically speaking, the newly forming institution that unites Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Atrium Health and Advocate Health will allow for an expansion of clinical trials across a much larger footprint and could be a major innovation that has the potential to provide tremendous insight into the human brain and human behavior.
I hope to take my research studies into this larger scale and create opportunities for collaboration across our vast network. Additionally, I hope our institution can become the hub for multi-site clinical trials in basic experimental studies in humans that collaborates with leaders in discovery human neuroscience on the international stage.
What advice would you give to young researchers?
Advances in science requires perseverance and persistence. There will be all kinds of challenges that will get in your way – including professional and personal in nature. I distinguish perseverance and persistence in the following way.
Perseverance relates to staying focused on the research question and not being distracted or taken off course by other research questions that can be tackled but are not pursuant to your primary goals. Persistence relates to doing what is needed to ‘put food on the table’. There is a delicate balance between persevering in one’s pursuit of research questions that are the most interesting and present the “grand challenge”, versus persisting by tackling research questions that are able to bring in funding immediately (which is necessary to persist).
To stay ‘in the game’ and thrive, find balance between 1) problems that are the most interesting to you, and 2) problems that you have the tools to make progress in.
The former will provide the motivation to find a way through the roadblocks and hurdles; the latter will allow you to ‘give back’ to the institutions that support you as you make your way along your own path in your research career. Another way I think about this is to “pursue your passion”, but also “pay your way”.
What’s something you would like people to know about you?
I’ve been married to Thuy Vu, MS, a genetic counselor at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist's NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is part of Atrium Health Levine Cancer, for almost 20 years. She married me while I was still in graduate school! We have three kids: Kai (15), Emi (13) and Koji (10).
It hasn’t been easy to balance my passion for research and family but I think we are doing a pretty good job. I decided very early in my career that I did not want to sacrifice my family life for my ambitions in research. This was very challenging at times when it felt like others were able to ‘spend more time in the lab’ than I, because I had family- related obligations, responsibilities and desires. This seemed especially challenging in my postdoctoral years, but I persisted in keeping a balance. Thuy was immensely supportive and helped me keep this balance and encourage me along the way.
In hindsight, having this balance was crucial. My family has helped to keep me grounded and reminds me of what is most important. Family has also always been there to support me when ‘nature’ seemed to conspire against my research aspirations and not reveal its secrets so easily. I’m eternally grateful to Thuy, my kids and our extended family for their support.