The Brain Prize 2013

April 27, 2013

Professor Gero Miesenböck, Director of the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at the University of Oxford, has been awarded The Brain Prize 2013 “for the invention and refinement of optogenetics.”

Miesenböck was the first scientist who modified nerve cells genetically to produce light-responsive pigments. By shining light on the pigment-producing cells he caused them to become electrically active. The function of the nerve cells could thus be influenced remotely, using flashes of light instead of direct electrical connections. Miesenböck was also the first to use the technique of optogenetics to remote-control the behaviour of an animal, which he had bred to contain light-sensitive nerve cells in its brain.

Miesenböck shares the €1 million award with five other scientists: Ernst Bamberg of the Max-Planck Institute for Biophysics, Edward Boyden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University, Peter Hegemann of Humboldt University, and Georg Nagel of the University of Würzburg. Boyden and Deisseroth refined optogenetics by swapping the light-responsive molecule originally used by Miesenböck for a different photopigment, which had been discovered and characterised in the interim by Bamberg, Hegemann, and Nagel.

The Brain Prize is endowed by the Copenhagen-based Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation. The prize will be awarded by HRH Frederik, The Crown Prince of Denmark, in a ceremony on May 2nd, 2013.

The Selection Committee, comprising an international jury of distinguished scientists, commented: “This revolutionary technique allows genetically specified populations of neurons to be turned on or off with light, offering not only the ability to elucidate the characteristics of normal and abnormal neural circuitry, but also new approaches to treatment of brain disorders.”

Gero Miesenböck says: “I knew from our first successful experiment that this could go very far, but the speed with which the idea has been adopted and developed has nevertheless been astonishing. Every other grant application in neuroscience now has an element of optogenetics in it.”

Miesenböck adds: “It’s nice to see the creation of new technology recognized. As Steve Jobs famously said, people don’t know what they want or need until you put it in front of them. Scientists are not all that different. Most of us are consumers of technology, not inventors.”

The Brain Prize 2013 is the second major international accolade which Gero Miesenböck has received in the past year. In April 2012 he was awarded Belgium’s top science prize, the InBev-Baillet Latour International Health Prize, also for the invention of optogenetics.