Society for Neuroscience Outstanding Achievement Awards
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Society of Neuroscience (SfN) will honor leading researchers who have made significant contributions to neuroscience — including the understanding of cognitive processes, drug addition, neuropharmacology, and theoretical models — with this year’s Outstanding Achievement Awards. The awards will be presented during SfN’s annual meeting.
“The Society is honored to recognize this year’s awardees, whose groundbreaking research has revolutionized our understanding of the brain, from the level of the synapse to the structure and function of the cortex, shedding light on how vision, memory, perception of touch and pain, and drug addiction are organized in the brain,” SfN President Barry Everitt, said. “This exceptional group of neuroscientists has made fundamental discoveries, paved the way for new therapeutic approaches, and introduced new tools that will lay the foundation for decades of research to come.”
Peter Seeburg Integrative Neuroscience Prize: Peter Jonas
The newly established Peter Seeburg Integrative Neuroscience Prize, endowed by the Schaller-Nikolich Foundation, honors original and groundbreaking achievements in neuroscience. Named after Peter H. Seeburg, a German neuroscientist and pioneer in molecular neurobiology, the prize recognizes outstanding advances in the understanding of executive brain functions and cognitive processes. The award includes a $100,000 prize.
Peter Jonas, professor of physiology and neuroscience at the Institute of Science and Technology (IST) Austria, is a pioneer of the field of nanophysiology and a leader in the analysis of interneuron function. His research seeks to understand how synaptic properties shape higher-order computations in the mammalian brain. His focus has progressed in a bottom-up manner, from the level of receptors and channels, to synapses, to circuits and in vivo recordings. Working with Peter Seeburg, he helped discover glutamate receptors on interneurons that are permeable to calcium and elucidate their mechanism. He also found spinal cord interneurons that co-release two transmitters, characterized cells generated by adult neurogenesis, uncovered the first evidence of analog coding at the mammalian cortical synapse, and discovered connectivity motifs in the hippocampus. He is well-known for his work in parvalbuminexpressing GABAergic interneurons and has elucidated the molecular and subcellular mechanisms of their fast signaling. Jonas also developed new techniques and revolutionized presynaptic recording, confocally targeted dendritic and axonal recordings, and paired and multi-cell recording. He uniquely and skillfully couples experimental with theoretical expertise, combining these cutting-edge technologies with quantitative modeling to rigorously test his hypotheses and develop new concepts. The current understanding of synaptic communication and information processing in neuronal microcircuits owes much to Jonas’s groundbreaking contributions.
Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience: Robert Desimone and Jon Kaas
The Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience honors outstanding scientists who have made significant contributions to neuroscience throughout his or her careers. The highest recognition conferred by the Society, the prize is named for the revered neuroscientist Dr. Ralph W. Gerard who helped establish the Society for Neuroscience and served as its honorary president. The honorees share a $30,000 prize. Robert Desimone, the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has helped lay the foundation for our current understanding of cortical function in the visual system. His seminal work on attention spans decades, including the discovery of a neural basis for covert attention in the temporal cortex (independent of moving an eye or hand to a stimulus) and the creation of the biased competition model, positing that attention is biased towards material relevant to the task. More recent work revealed how synchronized brain rhythms help enhance visual processing. Desimone also helped discover both face cells and neural populations that identify objects even when the size or location of the object changes. His long list of contributions includes mapping the extrastriate visual cortex, publishing the first report of columns for motion processing outside the primary visual cortex, and discovering how the temporal cortex retains memories. Desimone’s work has moved the field from broad strokes of input and output to a more nuanced understanding of cortical function that allows the brain to make sense of the environment. Jon Kaas, a distinguished centennial professor at Vanderbilt University, has had a groundbreaking career revealing the structure and function of the cerebral cortex, as well as the plasticity of the adult brain. Through decades of detailed research, Kaas mapped the cortex in nearly thirty mammalian species, from chimpanzees to hedgehogs, providing a clearer understanding of the evolution of the human brain and its capabilities. By integrating fine-grained electrophysical mapping with detailed anatomical reconstructions, his work has revealed the functional and structural organization of sensory systems, including the visual system and somatosensory system, across multiple species. Kaas also helped demonstrate that the adult brain is capable of functional reorganization following injury or motor training, helping to overturn the doctrine that plasticity was limited to early life. This work has led to more effective approaches to rehabilitation after brain damage following stroke, macular degeneration, or motor system disorders and injuries. The atlases Kaas has helped establish — identifying component structures, the inputs and outputs to those structures, and their functional topography — have laid the foundation for all studies of function, while his work showing that these maps are continuously revisable via life-long plasticity revolutionized rehabilitation strategies.
Jacob P. Waletzky Award: Mary Kay Lobo
The Jacob P. Waletzky award recognizes a young scientist whose independent research has led to significant conceptual and empirical contributions to the understanding of drug addiction. The award is endowed by The Waletzky Family and The Waletzky Award Prize Fund. Recipients receive a $30,000 prize. Mary Kay Lobo, a professor in the department of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is a leader in the field of studying basal ganglia circuitry in drug addiction and stress. Her research focuses on the molecular mechanisms in vulnerable brain cell populations that drive cellular and circuit dysfunction leading to addiction. As a graduate student, she developed novel protocols to isolate two neuronal subpopulations (D1- and D2-expressing medium spiny neurons) and characterized genes specific to each subpopulation’s role in the striatum, a brain region implicated in drug addiction. She continued this work during her postdoctoral research, demonstrating for the first time that optogenetic manipulation of these two subpopulations, during cocaine exposure, produces opposite effects: stimulation of D1 cells promotes addictive-like behaviors, while stimulation of D2 cells blunts them. In her own lab, Lobo continues to unravel the mechanisms of addiction by incorporating new tools in addition to optogenetics, including transcriptomic approaches with single cell resolution and genetic engineering, using approaches like CRISPR to target molecules in disrupted brain cell subtypes. She also uncovered a role of mitochondria in mediating cellular plasticity in response to cocaine abstinence, revealing a mechanism by which D1 and D2 medium spiny neurons may use the same cellular machinery towards different ends and providing the first detailed demonstration of how drugs of abuse affect basic mitochondrial processes in neurons. Lobo’s work is state of the art, applying cutting edge methodologies to address fundamental questions in the field of drug addiction and stress to provide answers with direct clinical relevance.
Julius Axelrod Prize: David Ginty
The Julius Axelrod Prize honors a scientist with distinguished achievements in the broad field of neuropharmacology or related area and exemplary efforts in mentoring young scientists. The award, endowed by the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation, includes a $30,000 prize. David Ginty, a professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is a leader in the sensory neurobiology field. His research focuses on the development, organization, and function of neural circuits that underlie perception of touch and pain. Ginty’s earliest contributions to developmental neuroscience include defining key ligand-receptor interactions and signaling mechanisms that support neuronal survival and the establishment of connectivity in the peripheral nervous system. More recently, his laboratory has focused on the neurobiology of touch. He has revealed fundamental properties and functions of dorsal root ganglia mechanosensory neurons and their synaptic connections in the spinal cord and brainstem. This work, which uses innovative molecular genetic approaches, anatomy, electron microscopy, and physiology, has led to many insights, including the morphological and molecular bases of physiological response properties and receptive fields of distinct classes of low-threshold mechanosensory neurons. These studies have also established organizational principles of spinal cord touch circuitry, a conceptual framework for how mechanosensory neuron activity ensembles are integrated within the earliest stages of the somatosensory hierarchy, and a mechanosensory neuron synaptic basis for the disproportionate central representation of the body in the brain. Ginty’s work has also revealed dysfunction of mechanosensory neurons and spinal cord circuit motifs underlying aberrant touch reactivity and behaviors in models of autism spectrum disorders and pain. In addition to his high impact research, Ginty has served as a mentor to budding scientists for 26 years. He has mentored 27 doctoral students and 23 postdocs who praise the invaluable impact he has had on their careers. His interest in, excitement for, and support of everyone’s work as well as his way of pushing the scientific envelope challenge and encourage his mentees to achieve their full scientific potential and become creative scientists themselves. Specifically, his mentees lauded Ginty’s immense kindness and support for new parents and a commitment to diversity and inclusion for decades both as a lab head and also as a leader of graduate programs. Ginty’s contributions to the field extend beyond his research to his impact on the next generation of scientists.
Swartz Prize for Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience: Nicolas Brunel
The Swartz Prize for Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience is given to an individual who has made either a significant cumulative contribution to or a particularly noteworthy recent advance in theoretical models or computational methods in neuroscience. The prize is endowed by the Swartz Foundation and the recipient receives a $30,000 prize. Nicolas Brunel, a professor in the departments of neurobiology and physics at Duke University, has made seminal contributions to theoretical neuroscience, ranging from synaptic plasticity and information processing at the single neuron level to the dynamics of neural networks and memory. He is a leading figure in the field, combining a rigorous mathematical approach with a wide understanding of neuroscience. Among many valuable discoveries, his research elucidated the mechanisms of persistent activity in cortical networks — thought to be the substrate of working memory — and the dynamics of networks of spiking neurons, demonstrating that inhibition dominates excitation. He also designed an innovative method to infer synaptic plasticity rules from distributions of neural responses to novel and familiar stimuli and modeled how neurons respond to noisy inputs, revealing how the firing rate depends on the statistics of the inputs. Brunel’s contributions accomplish one of the main deliverables of computational and theoretical approaches: using what is measurable (such as neural responses) to infer the organization and operation of the brain.
The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is an organization of basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and the nervous system.