Alumni Profile: Jeffrey Kleim

Jeffrey Kleim came to the University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute for one reason: William Greenough.

Jeffrey Kleim
Jeffrey Kleim

Jeffrey Kleim came to the University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute for one reason: William Greenough.

That’s because Greenough, Co-chair of Beckman’s Biological Intelligence research theme, was, Kleim said, “the guru of plasticity.”

Kleim is currently an Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Florida. He earned his master’s and Ph.D. at Illinois, working for almost five years in the Greenough Laboratory located in the Beckman Institute. He says he learned about everything from neuroscience topics such as brain plasticity to using experimental tools like electron microscopy from Greenough.

“He basically taught me everything I know about neuroplasticity in the brain,” Kleim said. “All the techniques that are in my lab now I learned here.”

Kleim said after that earning his undergraduate degree he applied to the University of Illinois, but his main goal was to join the Greenough Lab. Getting the invitation to join Greenough’s lab was, Kleim said, “like getting called up to the big leagues.

“If you are in the minors and you get called up to pitch, it was like that. It was very exciting. He was a world-famous guy so to get accepted to work in his lab was just remarkable. He also, simply put, is just a very nice guy.”

"(William Greenough) basically taught me everything I know about neuroplasticity in the brain. All the techniques that are in my lab now I learned here."
– Jeffrey Kleim

Kleim returned to Illinois in June for the Greenough Symposium and events related to Greenough’s retirement as a professor. It was a time to honor his mentor’s contributions as a teacher and researcher, but also to remember his time at Beckman working in the Greenough Lab in the mid-1990s.

“The group that I was here with was a lot of fun,” Kleim said during an interview at Beckman. “We worked hard and we played hard. We would work here till midnight every night and we would go to this bar down the street and have last call and then go home and get up and do it all over again. We did that for years. I walked in the bar last night for the first time in 10 years and the bartender remembered me. We used to sit around and drink beer and talk science. Science was work and it was fun. It was just a remarkable time.”

The reason Kleim came to Illinois and Beckman and the reason he returned for the symposium was because of his regard for Greenough both personally and professionally. Those feelings haven’t changed in the decade since he left.

“The thing about Bill is he’s not just a great mentor but he would also attract all these incredibly brilliant people, so you found yourself in this environment that he created that was just like a scientific Disneyland,” Kleim said. “It was unbelievable that I got to work here, and I knew when I left that I probably would never have that kind of experience again. It was that good.”

The experience laid the foundation for Kleim’s current research.

“All of my work in graduate school was about how motor learning in an intact nervous system is affected by the way that neurons were connected, looking at plasticity and neural connections,” he said. “I spent most of my graduate career looking at plasticity within motor brain areas and when I left I went on to try and apply that plasticity to a damaged brain, to find out how relearning might be accomplished by the same neuromechanisms that account for learning in a normal brain.”

At Florida Kleim’s research includes working to develop therapies that optimize plasticity toward enhancing recovery after stroke. The goal of the therapies, which include drugs and electrical stimulation, is to induce the type of mechanisms that lead to learning in a normal brain to have the same effect on an injured brain.

Kleim has written a book, “Neuroplasticity and Rehabilitation,” that is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2009. It will serve as a tool for clinicians working to rehabilitate patients with brain injuries.

“It’s all based on the kinds of things that I learned when I was here and in my own research,” Kleim said. “It’s applying what Bill has been working on for the last 40 to 50 years to a medical problem.”

This article is part of the Fall 2009 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.