Bennett Novitch, PhD

Bennett Novitch, Ph.D. 

Professor and Ethel Scheibel Chair in Neuroscience, Neurobiology; Co-Director, Cells Systems and Circuit Analysis Core, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center

Bio

Bennett Novitch, Ph.D., seeks to understand the nervous system, the complex and intricate network made up of the brain, the spinal cord and the nerves that run through the body. Through this work, he aims to discover the underlying causes of neural birth defects, intellectual disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders and neurodegenerative disorders such as spinal muscular atrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Novitch’s research seeks to identify how neural tissue is established during fetal development and how neurons form interconnected networks. This deeper understanding of fetal development will help scientists and clinicians recognize how cellular processes go awry to cause diseases or disorders. Novitch’s ultimate goal is to treat brain or spinal cord injury or disease by programing stem cells to generate neurons in a way that replicates normal development and restores lost neurological function.

Novitch’s most recent work focuses on creating simplified three-dimensional human brain tissue from stem cells. These so-called “mini brain organoids” mimic human brain growth, structure and development, making them vital to studying complex neurological diseases. These models provide clinicians and scientists with a perspective on the intricacies of the brain that has never before been available. Additionally, the ability to create hundreds to thousands of uniform mini brains that mimic disease allows scientists to screen drug candidates with unparalleled efficiency.

Novitch’s lab has already used these brain organoids to better understand how the Zika virus infects and damages fetal brain tissue and identify drugs that may block these devastating effects. Looking ahead, the Novitch lab intends to use these models to study other diseases that affect the formation of the brain or brain circuits such as epilepsy, autism and schizophrenia.

Another promising area of Novitch’s research centers on motor neurons, which control muscle movements needed for posture, walking, breathing and speaking. Motor neuron loss due to genetic defects, disease or injury can result in a range of movement disorders, paralysis, breathing problems and, in some cases, death. The Novitch lab has identified the chemical signals and gene networks that control the formation of motor neurons and applied this knowledge to direct the formation of these vital cells from pluripotent stem cells.

Novitch is now using these stem cell-derived neurons to discover the underlying causes of and investigate treatments for motor neuron disease.  In addition, he is examining whether the cells might be effective in cell replacement therapies for the diseased or injured spinal cord, in which connections between the spinal cord and brain have been lost.

Novitch earned his master’s degree in medical sciences in 1993 from Harvard Medical School and his doctoral degree in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology in 1998 from Harvard University. He completed postdoctoral training at the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University.

Publications

Honors & Affiliations

Honors

  • Ablon Fellowship Award, 2017
  • Ethel Scheibel Chair in Neuroscience in the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, 2016
  • Pilot Project award, UCLA Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, 2016

Affiliations 

  • Society for Developmental Biology
  • International Society for Stem Cell Research

Funding

Novitch’s work is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center, including support from the Wendy Ablon Trust.