Ioan Opris (1957-2020)

My good friend Ioan Opris passed away last year. We were in the midst of co-editing a book on brain augmentation when I received the sad news from his wife. Over the years I shared many memories with Ioan. I will always remember him smiling and proud after sharing a Spotlight Award from Frontiers in a congress in Switzerland. He was a neuroscientist and an artist but, more importantly, Ioan was a kind and dedicated husband and father. I will always miss our brainstorming meetings wherein we would solve a problem only to realize there was so much more we could do. I was asked to write his obituary for the scientific publications that requested the same.

Dr. Ioan Opris, a renowned pioneer in brain augmentation research, passed away in Miami, Fl on October 16, 2020. He is survived by his children Ioan Opris Jr. and Iris Mihaela Opris as well as by his loving wife Anca Liliana Opris.

Ioan Opris was born in Barsana, Maramure County, Romania and received both his undergraduate and PhD degrees in Physics/Biophysics from the University of Bucharest. In 1990, Ioan began his academic career as an assistant professor within the Faculty of Physics at the University of Bucharest. Years later he would introduce to his university a Master of Neuroscience course and establish together with Professor Ioana Moisil the Romanian Society of Neural Networks. In 1995, Ioan began his American adventure by working with Professor Randall Nelson (University of Tennessee, Memphis) on the role of the neostriatum in coding movement kinematics and motor control. Later work with Professor Vincent Ferrara from Columbia University would lead him to a McDonnell Pew Award (2000) on the neural correlates of decision mechanisms by the prefrontal cortex. He further pursued the work of his McDonnell Pew Award in the laboratories of Professors Charles Bruce and Patricia Goldman-Rakic at Yale University. Ioan then moved to Wake Forest University as a scientific researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Sam Deadwyler. In this laboratory he expanded his expertise of memory prosthetics. Ioan’s academic career began to soar as he participated in several articles demonstrating the functional role of the prefrontal cortical minicolumns in executive control. His studies demonstrated the restoration of cognitive function through a neuroprosthesis that used neural activation specific to the minicolumn in the prefrontal cortex of non-human primates. His interest in brain augmentation led to the collection of research publications which won the 2017 Frontiers Spotlight Award.

Ioan’s focus on cortical modularity established him as an heir to Vernon Mountcastle. He used to think of the stereotyped translaminar connections of the cell minicolumn in striking analogy to the quantum jumps of electrons across different energy levels. This conceptualization propelled Ioan into the exploration of the physics of the mind and brain disorders. This effort culminated in a book for which the Romanian Academy of Sciences bestowed the distinguished Nicolae Simionescu award.

At the time of his death, Ioan was an Associate Professor at the University of Miami working for the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Along with Brian Noga, Jim Guest, and Vance Lemon he studied locomotor behavior using a wide range of tools, including the simultaneous recording of brainstem neuronal activity combined with optogenetics and deep brain stimulation.

In his unquenchable curiosity, Ioan Opris was the archetype of the Renaissance man. His mind was always active. He drew ideas from a significant number of complex subjects to solve specific problems.

By keeping an open mind, he was always excited about what the world of neuroscience would bring and how he could explore the same. Indeed, according to Ioan, “It must be a fascinating concert, that of the mind paralleled by the brain’s physiology. I dreamed of articulating for the field this concert for forty years.” We have to believe that in the end his biggest academic regret was that there was so much more left to be explored.

Along with Ioan, I had the opportunity to organize an international meeting on Brain Augmentation in Lausanne, Switzerland. My dear friend Ioan is second from left, I am standing at the far right.
The photograph captures the prize awards for Brain Augmentation Technology provided by the Frontiers organization. I was honored to stand in the company of my good friends and collaborators Mikhael Lebedev (far right, Russia), Ioan Opris (center, Romania and USA), and Manuel Casanova (far left, USA).

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