As a child, Michael Bonaguidi, PhD, dreamed of shaping cities as an architect or engineer. Now he dreams of shaping brains as the newest principal investigator in USC’s Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. He started Jan. 1.

“Growing up on Legos and Lincoln Logs, I was very fascinated with building things,” he said. “As I took more biology courses and was exposed to other facets of science — from chemistry to physics — I became more interested not in the outside but within. And that’s what got me into bioengineering versus structural engineering.”

When it comes to brains, Bonaguidi already has his building blocks. His team studies individual neural stem cells within the adult brain. These stem cells have the potential to spawn more stem cells or to form new neurons and their critical supporting cells, called astroglia.

“We’ve essentially been exploring what neural stem cells can do, both under normal conditions and after injury,” he said.

Bonaguidi found these neural stem cells in an important part of the brain known as the hippocampus, which is involved in learning, memory and emotions. These stem cells offer intriguing possibilities for treating a variety of symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease and mood disorders.

He’s also on the quest to discover whether cells in other parts of the brain can acquire regenerative capabilities following head trauma, stroke or various types of brain damage.

“My approach is actually to learn what the brain can do and what it cannot do in terms of repair and regeneration,” he said, “and to learn the lessons of what it can do, identify what it can’t do and overcome those limits.”

One way to push these limits could be by finding potential drugs and chemicals that encourage neural stem cells to either last longer or make particular types of cells. This could usher in new treatments for physically and mentally debilitating conditions.

Bonaguidi has ideal training to tackle these problems. A native of Chicago, he completed his undergraduate studies in bioengineering at Marquette University, his PhD in neuroscience at Northwestern University and his postdoctoral training in stem cells at Johns Hopkins University.

“For me, I think the sky is the limit at USC,” he said. “It’s in a tremendous growing phase right now, and that’s made very obvious by the substantial investment in stem cell research, neuroscience and imaging.”

— Cristy Lytal