For pioneering optogenetics work, Miesenböck receives Heinrich Wieland Prize

Optogenetics pioneer Gero Miesenböck of the University of Oxford (England) received the €100,000 (close to $110,000) Heinrich Wieland Prize of the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation (Munich, Germany) on November 6, 2015.

Related: Six optogenetics scientists share $1.3M brain research prize

Optogenetics—derived from optics and genetics—has revolutionized brain research, as it has shown which nerve cells wake us up and clarified how cocaine and other drugs re-program the reward system of the brain. Researchers have used it to restore lost memories, demonstrating that in some cases the memory itself is still intact and only its retrieval impaired. Optogenetics has revealed that the neuronal basis for “typical male” behavior also slumbers within the female brain. And in mice with Parkinson’s disease, it has turned the typical shuffling gait into sure steps once again. This year, researchers will use optogenetics for the first time to attempt to restore vision in blind people.

Gero Miesenböck, a professor at the University of Oxford, is the recipient of the €100,000 Heinrich Wieland Prize of the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation for his concept of optogenetics. (Credit: University of Oxford)

To deal with the challenges of life, different types of nerve cells in the brains of animals—and humans—are wired together into circuits. These circuits compare incoming signals, measure time, store memories, etc. When several of these circuits work together, they can master complex tasks. Thanks to Miesenböck's optogenetic method, we can study such circuits much more precisely than before—and in the living brain.

The image shows the brain of a fruit fly. The nerve cells shown in magenta are altered in such a way as to respond to the light signal (shown in the same color). (Credit: A. Claridge-Chang, R. Roorda and G. Miesenböck/University of Oxford)

“Miesenböck’s great achievement was to insert light-regulated proteins into specific cell types and thus pave the way to turn nerve cells on and off quickly, simply, and reliably. This is why we have selected him as the recipient of the Heinrich Wieland Prize 2015,” says Professor Wolfgang Baumeister, chair of the scientific selection committee of the Heinrich Wieland Prize.

During the presentation ceremony on November 6, 2015, the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation held a scientific symposium on optogenetics at Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. In addition to a talk by Miesenböck, there were lectures by Professor Christian Lüscher, Professor Botond Roska, and Professor Arthur Konnerth dealing with their work on optogenetics, addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, and cures for blindness. All three speakers are internationally acclaimed scientists in their respective fields.

This international award honors outstanding research on biologically active molecules and systems in the fields of chemistry, biochemistry, and physiology, as well as their clinical importance. The prize is named after the Nobel Laureate Heinrich Otto Wieland (1877-1957) and has been awarded annually since 1964. Since 2011, the prize has been endowed by the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation.

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