Scientists once believed that the adult brain did not change after it matured. But recent evidence has begun to tell a different story; the brain is now thought to constantly renew itself.
This month, the Kavli Foundation celebrated three exceptional researchers whose pioneering work has helped to tell the story of this changeability, known as “plasticity”. Announced at the World Science Festival to an audience of renowned scientists that included Eric Kandel, MD, codirector of Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute and director of the university’s Kavli Institute for Brain Science, the million-dollar Kavli Prize for neuroscience went to Eve Marder, PhD, of Brandeis University; Michael Merzenich, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco; and Carla Shatz, PhD, of Stanford University.
“The selection of Drs. Marder, Merzenich and Shatz recognizes a series of major breakthroughs in the understanding of brain plasticity over several different timescales,” said Thomas M. Jessell, PhD, co-director of Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute, 2008 Kavli Prize winner and a co-director at the university’s Kavli Institute for Brain Science. “These are important discoveries that offer clinical relevance in several domains of brain recovery and repair.”
Dr. Marder’s studies in lobsters showed that circuits of brain cells are not necessarily specialized for a single task but can be programmed by modulatory factors to do different things. Dr. Merzenich helped to define auditory processing and to develop the cochlear implant, a hearing aid that takes advantage of the brain’s flexibility in interpreting information from the senses. Dr. Shatz revealed that the spontaneous activity of cells in the retina changes the strength of connections between nerve cells.
Given biannually by the Kavli Foundation and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli prizes go to nine scientists from three disciplines: neuroscience, astrophysics and nanoscience. This year’s astrophysics award commended the first detection of gravitational waves, ripples in space-time predicted by Albert Einstein. This achievement was made possible by a broad collaboration of scientists that included Columbia University researchers.
The nanoscience prize recognized the atomic force microscope, a device that allows for the imaging and manipulation of individual atoms. “This is a tool that all of us use all of the time,” said Michal Lipson, PhD, a Columbia University professor of electrical engineering and a participant in a panel discussion at the Kavli Prize ceremony. “It completely enables nanotechnology to be what it is today.”