Krishna Shenoy, engineer who reimagined how the brain makes the body move, dies at 54
Krishna V. Shenoy, the Hong Seh and Vivian W. M. Lim Professor in the School of Engineering, a professor of electrical engineering and, by courtesy, of bioengineering, of neurobiology, and of neurosurgery at Stanford University, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on how the brain creates movement in the rest of the body, died on January 21, 2023, in Palo Alto, California. He had battled pancreatic cancer for more than a decade. Shenoy was 54.
Shenoy led the Stanford Neural Prosthetic Systems Lab and co-directed the Stanford Neural Prosthetics Translational Laboratory, which jointly aim to restore lost motor function to people with paralysis. He was also an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a member of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford. Shenoy was simultaneously a leading theorist of how the brain processes underlying complex and coordinated movements and a practical engineer of the highest order, turning his own hard-earned scientific precepts into working prototypes that could help people with paralysis control prosthetics and cursors by thinking.
“Krishna Shenoy was not only a superb, brilliant scientist and a pioneer in his field, but he was also an amazing human being, who deeply cared about everyone around him,” said Jelena Vuckovic, chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and a longtime colleague of Shenoy’s. “He had an infectious enthusiasm for science, and for making the world a better place through his transformative research and through his actions as an advisor, a colleague, and a person. Krishna made all of us think more and be better humans. This is a tragic loss for his family, but also for our department, for science, and for the world.”
In the most vivid example of his brilliance, Shenoy used brain-implantable chips, each only about 4 millimeters square, to eavesdrop on neural activity in the motor cortex. He then paired them with algorithms able to decipher the neurons’ intent. He used that deep understanding to control prosthetics and computers. It was the stuff of science fiction, except that it was all true.
In 2022, The New York Times Magazine described the transformative experiences of Dennis DeGray, a 69-year-old man paralyzed from the neck down who, aided by Shenoy’s technology, was able to control a computer cursor with his mind and to shape letters on screen by simply visualizing himself putting pen to paper.
Shenoy’s scientific contributions to neuroscience can fairly be described as profound. His dynamical systems approach to motor neural activity evolved over the course of decades of research. Shenoy completely redefined scientific understanding of motor neurons, leading to a fundamental re-thinking of how the brain creates movement. In recent years, dissatisfied with existing models, Shenoy had begun to remap the human motor cortex.
“His work was so far ahead of its time that it is only now becoming widely accepted in the field,” said colleague Jaimie Henderson, MD, a frequent co-author and co-director with Shenoy of the Neural Prosthetics Translational Lab. “But he was also a practical engineer. He put his pioneering understanding to work developing one of the highest-performing interfaces yet built for brain-computer communication, which he later successfully translated in a human clinical trial. Helping people is the core of who he was, and how I will remember him best.”
Unassuming as he was, Shenoy was a serious and sober scientist. He published frequently, including at least 145 peer-reviewed papers and 11 book chapters. His collected papers have been cited more than 24,000 times. He held 11 patents and had two pending applications at the time of his death. “He was humble in a way that was unique in a scientist of his stature, and was constantly questioning his own conclusions with a fully open mind,” Henderson said.
And yet, he was perhaps best known within Stanford circles as a consummate teacher and advisor, devoting invaluable hours to his students, who often went on to faculty positions and leadership at Stanford and other top academic institutions around the world.
“Krishna had this icebreaker among his team where everyone had to tell an embarrassing story about themselves. These stories helped us feel more human and connected as friends and prepared us to do hard work together with a different mindset,” recalled Cindy Chestek, a one-time advisee and now a professor at the University of Michigan. “We were the happiest grad students. We had freedom. We had encouragement. We were incredibly productive. That was 100 percent Krishna’s vision. I learned so much from him and I will miss him greatly.”
Many in this academic diaspora playfully referred to themselves as the “Shenoy Division,” a twist on the name of the influential late-70s English band “Joy Division.” Everyone mattered. The lists of current members on his lab websites were always inverted – administrators first, directors last.
“Krishna was more than an employer. He was my friend, an inspiration, a wonderful colleague, and mentor in life,” offered Beverly Davis, administrative associate to Shenoy and NPSL. “I experienced his incredible mentoring over eleven-and-half years together. He taught us humility. He treated us like family. He added my name on some of his papers. He brought forth so much joy and laughter – and great science. I miss him so.”
“Krishna was the ideal selfless mentor. He would spend years with each trainee, as he did with me, patiently, tirelessly, and almost without detection, shaping them to not just hone their scientific and engineering skills, but to make them a better person,” remembered Paul Nuyujukian, now an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, and a faculty scholar at the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford. “He would smooth over our seemingly solutionless research catastrophes with a smile. His overflowing generosity and welcoming spirit drew in everyone around him. Krishna believed, and taught me, that above all else, what matters most are people. He lived his life by this key principle. He enriched us all accordingly.”
From the heartland
Krishna Vaughn Shenoy was born September 3, 1968, in Sabetha, Kansas, the son of an engineer. He earned his Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering at the University of California, Irvine, in 1990. He then entered graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science in 1992 and 1995, respectively. Shenoy then spent six years as a postdoctoral scholar in neurobiology at Caltech before joining the Stanford faculty in 2001.
Shenoy was elected as a Member of the National Academy of Medicine, as a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical & Biological Engineering (AIMBE), and as a Fellow in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He garnered a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences, a Sloan Fellowship, a McKnight Technological Innovations in Neurosciences Award, an NIH EUREKA Award, an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, and the Andrew Carnegie Prize in Mind and Brain Sciences from Carnegie Mellon University. As a consultant and an entrepreneur, Shenoy held seats on the scientific advisory boards of companies MIND-X, Inscopix Inc., Heal, and CTRL-Labs, and was co-founder of and advisor to Neuralink.
He is survived by his wife, Bach-Nga Shenoy, daughters Thanh-Nga Shenoy and Kim-Nga Shenoy, and his mother, Rosa Louise Shenoy. His father, Panduranga “Pandu” Udyavar Shenoy, died in October 2022. A Stanford memorial service is being planned; details will be forthcoming. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in the name of Krishna Vaughn Shenoy be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.