Six optogenetics scientists share $1.3M brain research prize

Six scientists who pioneered optogenetics—a technique that uses light to control neurons to advance understanding of the brain and its disorders—have garnered The Brain Prize, a brain research prize worth $1.3 million (€1 million). The prize is awarded by the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Prize Foundation (Copenhagen, Denmark).

The six prize winners are:

Gero Miesenböck, Waynflete Professor of Physiology and Director of the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at the University of Oxford in England;

Ernst Bamberg, Director, Department of Biophysical Chemistry at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics (Frankfurt, Germany);

Peter Hegemann, researcher, Department of Experimental Biophysics at the Humboldt University of Berlin in Germany;

Georg Nagel, researcher, Institute Julius-von-Sachs at the University of Würzburg in Germany;

Ed Boyden, Assistant Professor, MIT Media Lab; Joint Professor, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; and Department of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, MA); and

Karl Deisseroth, D.H. Chen Professor of Bioengineering and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University in California.

Related: MIT's Ed Boyden awarded research prize for optogenetics work

Optogenetics makes it easier to investigate diseases of the brain such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, pain disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD, and addiction. It will play a significant role in the understanding of these disorders and, over time, in the development of a treatment for them. With optogenetics, neurons under investigation can be genetically modified and made light-sensitive. Then, when these neurons are stimulated by specific wavelengths of light, they can be turned either on or off.

"Optogenetic control of nerve cells is arguably the most important technical advance in neuroscience in the past 40 years," says British professor Colin Blakemore, chairman of the Foundation's selection committee. "It offers a revolution in our understanding of the way in which circuits of neurons carry out complex functions, such as learning and controlling movement. And it could provide an entirely new approach to the restoration of function in blindness or brain degeneration, and to the treatment of a variety of other neurological and psychiatric disorders."

The four European scientists, Bamberg, Hegemann, Miesenböck, and Nagel, made the fundamental observations and discoveries and developed light-sensitive molecules that can be introduced into specific types of neuron. The two Americans collaborated with the Europeans to develop the technique further and put it to work in living mammals.

The six scientists will receive the shared $1.3 million prize at a ceremony on May 2, 2013, in Copenhagen.

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