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Breaking New Ground: Levi Todd, PhD, Pioneering Neural Regeneration at the Center for Vision Research

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Breaking New Ground: Levi Todd, PhD, Pioneering Neural Regeneration at the Center for Vision Research

Levi Todd PhD, new assistant professor at the Center for Vision Research (CVR), is bringing his efforts to reverse vision loss to Upstate. What started as a broad fascination with the brain has become an effort to unravel the complexities of diseases that cause the loss of neurons, leading to conditions that currently have no treatment options. Todd comes to Upstate from the University of Washington, where he spent five years as a postdoc. He completed his PhD at the Ohio State University.

Levi Todd, PhD is the newest assistant professor at Upstate's Center for Vision Research.

“We’re trying to figure out how to regenerate neurons after they are lost; either from brain injury, spinal cord injury, or in my case, blinding diseases of the eye," explains Todd.

Once neurons, which are the fundamental cells of the nervous system, are lost in humans they are gone forever. However, this isn’t the case for all species. Some animals such as fish, frogs, and salamanders are able to regenerate brains, eyes, and spinal cords. "There's this huge mystery in biology,” says Todd. “Why can some species regenerate and some can't? That's really my main driving question; why did humans lose the capability to fix our nervous system and regrow neurons that are lost?"

Recently his team demonstrated that neuronal regeneration is possible. "We’ve made a ton of progress that I’m still shocked by. It’s been around five years, which is not that long, since we have shown for the first time ever in adult mice, that we could stimulate regeneration of neurons in the eye."

Todd's research suggests future treatment for diseases with no current options. Unlike conventional approaches focused on preserving existing vision, his work explores the possibility of regrowing neurons from scratch, offering hope for conditions like macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other blinding diseases. 

“Right now, we’re focusing on ganglion cells, which are lost in glaucoma or an optic nerve injury. There is more known about how to make a ganglion cell, so we're using that knowledge and using developmental cues to remake them in adults.” Todd hopes his discoveries can then be applied to a wide range of cells. "Ideally, if we want a photoreceptor, we’ll know the recipe to generate that photoreceptor. If we want a ganglion cell, we can find the genes that are needed to make a ganglion cell."

Todd’s career in science began with a general interest in the brain. “It was stunning to me that everything about me- my personality, my sensory system, is all from this soft floating organ and these chemicals in my head.” His curiosity led him to glial cells, which play an essential role in neuronal support and in some species can regenerate neurons. 

“Historically glial cells were ignored; people were sticking electrodes into things and recording electrically active cells. Because glia aren’t electrically active, they're kind of ignored with those techniques. Glial cells perform all the support functions; without glia there would be no neurons.”

Coming to the CVR has allowed Todd to be surrounded by investigators doing work that aligns with his research. “I think we've always been odd ducks in our departments. We were in our own little silo where people were doing work all across the spectrum of neuroscience, but nobody else worked on the eye or retina. What I'm excited about at the CVR is the strong nucleus of labs that do complementary work. I’m excited to see how that will push my own thinking in different directions.”

Dr. William Brunken, the Director of the CVR, recognizes the immense impact of Dr. Todd’s work.

“The Holy Grail of neural repair is to be able to turn a nervous system back to its youthful state where you can generate neurons from a progenitor pool,” explains Brunken. “Levi’s using cutting-edge technology to understand what those developmental steps are, and then attempting to reprogram cells.”

“Levi's work ties in very nicely with what we're doing in the CVR; he connects two different groups that have, until his presence, been disparate. We have a glaucoma group that's interested in regenerating ganglion cells and a group that's working on regenerating photoreceptor cells. His technologies and his approach can bring those two components together in a cool way.”

"The two things I'm most excited about are one, not knowing what I'm going to work on in 10, 15 years,” says Todd. “I'm excited about the unpredictability. I think as long as you do good, reliable work, good things happen.”

“Second, I’m really excited about the mentorship side. What made me excited about science was the exceptional mentorship I received that let me grow and chase ideas. I’m excited to have that role; where young scientists come to the lab, have their own ideas, and take our research into new directions that I couldn’t predict.”

As Todd continues to push the boundaries of what is possible, his research holds the promise of transforming the lives of countless individuals affected by devastating neural diseases.

You can read more about his lab's work, or reach out if you're interested in joining his lab here-

For more information about the Center for Vision Research, visit

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