Four scientists—Winfried Denk (Max Planck Institute for Medical Research), Arthur Konnerth (Technical University of Munich), Karel Svoboda (Howard Hughes Medical Institute), and David Tank (Princeton University)—have been awarded the world's most valuable neuroscience prize, the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Prize, a.k.a. The Brain Prize (worth $1.08 million), for the invention and development of two-photon microscopy. The method has become a transformative tool in brain research, as it allows real-time examination of the brain's finest structures.
For instance, two-photon microscopy lets researchers examine the function of individual nerve cells with high precision. The ability to see how nerve cells communicate with each other in networks is a huge step forward in understanding the physical mechanisms of the human brain, how its networks process information, and how connections between nerve cells are established in the developing brain. The two-photon technique has led to identification of signaling pathways that control communication between nerve cells and provide the basis for memory. It has also enabled the study of nerve cell activity in those networks that control vision, hearing, and movement.
Denk was the driving force behind the invention of two-photon microscopy. With Tank and Svoboda, he used the technique as an innovative tool to visualize activity at the level of the neurons' fundamental signaling units, the "dendritic spines." Konnerth built on this invention to simultaneously monitor the activity in thousands of synaptic connections in living animals, and Svoboda went on to use two-photon microscopy to map the changes that occur in the brain's network when animals learn new skills.