Creating His Own Path

John Morrison Has Become an Expert on Neuroscience and Aging

John Morrison stands in lab
John Morrison, a member of the National Academy of Medicine, is an expert in the field of neuroscience. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

John Morrison was such an early expert in the field of neurobiology that the major didn’t even exist at his university when he was an undergraduate. Now at UC Davis, he’s a leader in the field and continues to play a central role in the research community.

Morrison, a core faculty member and former director at the California National Primate Research Center, is a distinguished professor of neurology in the School of Medicine and professor in the Center for Neuroscience. An expert on aging and Alzheimer’s disease, Morrison was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2016, a year after joining UC Davis.

Answering lifespan questions

“I came here so that I could get involved in areas of nonhuman primate research that you simply can’t do without a primate center,” Morrison said. The center has over 4,500 primates across all age groups, he explained, “and it allows us to look at the lifespan and relate that to the human lifespan and human vulnerabilities in ways that really would not have been possible.”


UC Davis has more than 50 faculty members who belong to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, a recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in research. The academies are among the most prestigious membership organizations in the world.

Each month, Dateline UC Davis will profile one of these faculty members in honor of their contributions to scientific research and knowledge.

The COVID-19 pandemic seemingly targeted the elderly and those with greater vulnerability and weaker immune systems. Working alongside peers in virology, researchers at the primate center studied aged members of a monkey colony with Type 2 diabetes “to show that the viral invasion of the brain and the neurobiological complications of COVID were much more severe in the aged Type 2 diabetic monkeys than in the young models,” he explained.

They are now researching “whether or not that neuro-invasion in the aged Type 2 diabetic monkeys overlaps with the pathologic patterns of Alzheimer’s disease. And would it leave humans more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease?”

A leading institution

Morrison believes infectious disease will continue to be a subject of great focus and research in the future, with UC Davis standing “very strong” in the field. Across the Department of Neurology and the Center for Neuroscience, Morrison has “been able to get entrenched in the neuroscience community here.”

Alongside academia, Morrison has also seen his field grow through the Council for the Society for Neuroscience, of which he’s been a member since 1976, when he was a graduate student.

Creating his own major

The field was much smaller then — no undergraduate neuroscience degree was offered at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied. Instead, Morrison “kind of created one of my own” by taking biology, chemistry and every brain-related course he could find. 

“That’s kind of become a neurobiology major: two years of biology, two years of chemistry, and a bunch of specialized neuroscience courses. Now at UC Davis, it’s a very popular major.”

Morrison has been able to watch the field of neuroscience grow into a discipline, but also “one of the major areas of emphasis at American universities and schools of medicine.”

Morrison is focused on telling the next generation of researchers about issues they will face and ways for them to tackle these big issues in their careers.

“One of my goals always has been to expose not only my trainees but all the trainees at the Society for Neuroscience to nonacademic career opportunities,” Morrison said. “It’s much, much harder for these young people now than it was for me.”

Still, his work on campus is where his passions have aligned for himself and the community Morrison has helped grow.

“UC Davis has a very well-developed, outstanding neuroscience community,” Morrison said, “and being at UC Davis has been very rewarding.”

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José Vadi is a writer for Dateline UC Davis, and can be reached by email.

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