ZEISS BEYOND TALKS

Heart meets mind in neuroscience

Interview with Prof. Ling Feng, neurosurgeon and Deputy Director of China INI in Beijing.


Professor Ling Feng is a leading neurosurgeon and Deputy Director of the China International Neuroscience Institute (China INI) in Beijing. In a field driven by science, she says empathy is still the most important trait.

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Interview with Prof. Ling Feng, neurosurgeon and Deputy Director of China INI in Beijing*

You’ve been in the field of neuroscience for a long time – please tell us something about your career.

I joined the army in 1968 and was assigned to work in a hospital as a nursing assistant. My tasks were to feed and wash patients, and clean wards and toilets. During those two years, I saw how people suffered through pain after trauma and surgery. I wanted to help them, but as I wasn’t a doctor there was a limit to how much I could do. This really bothered me.

Myself and the other assistants were put through a course in basic anatomy. This attracted me to learn more, and two years later I was selected for a medical university. It was a massive opportunity for me and I studied very hard – graduating with distinction.

My initial hospital training took me through many different treatment areas, including pediatrics, orthopedic surgery, and burns. The last step was neurosurgery, where I had an excellent tutor. He told me there are three criteria for being a successful neurosurgeon: the drive to study hard, the willingness for self-sacrifice, and a good pair of hands. After six months of studying in his department, he told me that I display all three attributes and that I should become a neurosurgeon.

What makes China INI so significant for neuroscience?

China INI is one of the top three neuroscience institutions in China. We have more than 80 neurosurgeons specializing in eight sub-sets of neuroscience, and performing some 10,000 operations each year. There are beds for 400 patients.

Establishing the institute is probably my biggest life achievement. Its official opening in November 2016 was the culmination of more than 10 years of work and a dream come true for myself and many other neurosurgeons. We can all work together under the same roof and collaborate to come up with the best solutions for our patients.

The building itself – resembling the shape of a brain – is a replica of the Hannover International Neuroscience Institute in Germany.

What should people know about the emotional and physical challenges of your work?

The first thing I do every morning is look at my phone to check the reports on patients who are in a serious condition. At China INI we perform some 60 operations daily – many of which are complicated. The work really touches my heart, as some patients respond well to the operations and others less so.

To see a patient recover is the biggest source of joy, especially when they are very sick to begin with and the operation really helps them. There have been so many successes over the course of my career, but some very challenging situations too.

For example, 20 years ago I treated a two-month-old baby who was born with a spinal defect. It was so complicated that nobody wanted to operate on the baby, but the mother asked me to try. The operation was a success, and just recently I discovered that the patient – now an adult – took part in a TV quiz show in which the smartest person wins. This brought me immense joy.

There have unfortunately been sad stories along the way too. Also 20 years ago, we had a patient who was in terrible facial pain due to a problem with the trigeminal nerve – the largest of the 12 cranial nerves. I performed the surgery, but tragically the patient died afterwards. This was of course terrible and left me very depressed. I couldn’t sleep at night and I questioned my abilities as a neurosurgeon. How could I trust myself to do another operation?

Then I visited a temple where I received some spiritual guidance that gave me the confidence to continue with my work. You really need to put your heart into this field of medicine, and even when things go wrong you need to accept that you gave the best you could to the patient.


You really need to put your heart into this field of medicine, and even when things go wrong you need to accept that you gave the best you could to the patient.

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How have you seen neuroscience change over the years?

Thanks to science and technology, we know so much more today than when I started. We used to make educated guesses before surgery, but now we have magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized tomography (CT scans), and other imaging tests we can do both before and during an operation.

With a general MRI we can see the inside the brain, and now we also have something called a functional MRI where we can actually see the brain working. Different signals indicate the patient’s thoughts, senses and more. By analyzing these, you can better understand the functioning of an individual’s brain.

Our primary job as neurosurgeons is to operate on the brain to remove any lesions. But other techniques have evolved too. For instance, we now have something called interventional neuroradiology, where we reach the patient’s brain through a tube inserted into the femoral artery.

Brain surgery is very detailed work, so you need to use microscopes to enlarge the image in order to operate successfully. Some vessels in the head are less than one millimeter wide, yet they can bleed profusely in the deepest parts of the brain. Sometimes you may spend up to two hours to stem the bleeding of one tiny vessel.

What do you think the future holds for neuroscience?

More and more we will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data. These things will change our lives in many ways, not just in neuroscience.

Today, we visit the doctor to treat our health. But in the future healthcare will be more about real-life monitoring and preventive medicine. In this way we will be able to identify anomalies before they become health problems. This will mean we can spot brain lesions when they are very small.


In the future healthcare will be more about real-life monitoring and preventive medicine.


Perhaps one day we won’t need to use a scalpel at all. Certain medications may be enough, or we will be able to inject nanotech robotic devices that can fix the problem. These kinds of technologies will also bring new hope in the treatment of conditions like autism and depression. I think we have a very good future to look forward to.

It’s critical that we teach the younger generation of doctors not only about science and technology, but also about the humanistic side of medicine. As a doctor, empathy towards the patient is your most important responsibility.


As a doctor, empathy towards the patient is your most important responsibility.


About China INI

The China International Neuroscience Institute (China INI) in Beijing is a medical, research and academic center for international neuroscience. The building housing the institute was designed and constructed to resemble the Hannover International Neuroscience Institute in Germany.

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