Saul Kato

Saul Kato, PhD is head of the Foundations of Cognition Laboratory and assistant professor of neurology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. Saul and his team study the brain and behavior of the nematode C. elegans in search of basic principles and building blocks of neural computation and cognitive function.  Saul has a background in neurobiology, theoretical physics, mathematics, computer science and hardware and software engineering. 


After studying many-body quantum mechanics with Nobelist Bob Laughlin as an undergraduate at Stanford University, Saul spent a decade as an engineer and tech entrepreneur before returning to science; he founded, financed, built, and sold two technology companies: Sven Technologies, which developed software algorithms and applications for 3D graphics rendering, and WideRay Corp., which pioneered the idea of local ad-hoc wireless content delivery, manufacturing and building a network of several thousand local content delivery points in fifteen countries. After getting his PhD from Columbia University in 2013 -- a computational-experimental project determining the signal processing properties of C. elegans neurons, jointly advised by Larry Abbott at the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia and Cori Bargmann at Rockefeller University, Saul became an EMBO Long-Term Fellow in the lab of Manuel Zimmer at the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, Austria.  Saul and the rest of the team deciphered a tight relationship between the dynamics of brain-wide activity and behavior in C. elegans. In Saul’s lab at UCSF, the work to "solve" the brain of this small but richly behaving animal continues…

C. Elegans: The Hydrogen Atom of Systems Neuroscience?

What would a satisfyingly complete understanding of how behavior arises from of the internal processing of an organism’s nervous system look like? The closest example we have is how the internal molecular life of E. coli drives the effective but frenetic dance of chemotaxis, a story elucidated over many decades as a beautiful combination of experiment and theory. There is a growing consensus that we must “look under the hood” in great detail and at high density to make real strides-- to that end, we recently achieved brain-wide cellular-resolution neuronal imaging in the worm using volumetric microscopy and genetic engineering.  It turns out that the worm has a very rich internal mental life in the form of highly structured intrinsic brain dynamics.  We have been able to decode the behavioral intent of the animal at all times during these trials, effectively reading the mind of the worm. Our work is now focused on two key areas: (1) how are these organized brain dynamics set up by the anatomical structure and signaling properties of neurons and their connections? And (2) how do these brain dynamics produce the computations that underlie appropriate behavior, such as action selection? For these questions we are developing technologies – using software, hardware, and genomic engineering-  to interrogate and perturb cellular properties and network dynamics during a live recording… and formulate and test theories of how a nervous system computes behavior via structured network dynamics.

Reference: Kato S, Kaplan HS, Schrödel T, Skora S, Lindsay TH, Yemini E, Lockery S, Zimmer M. Global brain dynamics embed the motor command sequence of Caenorhabditis elegans. Cell. 2015 Oct 22; 163(3):656-69. PMID: 26478179.