Warren Alpert Foundation Prize 2019

July 17, 2019

The 2019 Warren Alpert Foundation Prize has been awarded to four scientists for pioneering work in the field of optogenetics, ‘a revolutionary technique that uses light and genetic modification to control the activity of cells in the brain.’ Gero Miesenböck is recognised ‘for the first demonstrations of optogenetic control of neural activity and animal behaviour and for discoveries proving the utility of optogenetics for neurobiological research.’ He shares the prize with Ed Boyden of MIT, Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and Peter Hegemann of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

The Warren Alpert Foundation, in association with Harvard Medical School, honours scientists whose work has improved the understanding, prevention, treatment or cure of human disease.

The honorees will be recognised at a daylong symposium on 3 October 2019 at Harvard Medical School.

‘The discoveries made by this year’s four honorees have fundamentally changed the landscape of neuroscience,’ said George Q. Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School. ‘Their work has enabled scientists to see, understand and manipulate neurons, providing the foundation for understanding the ultimate enigma—the human brain.’

The Warren Alpert Foundation Prize recognises the work of scientists throughout the world. To date, nearly $5 million have been awarded to 69 scientists. Since the award’s inception in 1987, 10 honorees have gone on to receive a Nobel Prize.

‘The 2019 Warren Alpert Prize for medical research recognises one of the transformative technical advances of the past decade. The ability to selectively turn on neuronal signals with light exposure has made achievable a more refined analysis of neural connections underlying behaviour,’ said Joseph Martin, director and chairman of the board of the Warren Alpert Foundation and former dean of Harvard Medical School.

Gero Miesenböck said: ‘Most studies in neuroscience now include an interventionist element, often at their core. But for all the power of optogenetic control, it’s important to remember that switching things on and off artificially is only the beginning and not the end—the deepest insights typically come when we understand how the brain regulates its own activity. Optogenetic interventions can tell us where to look for these self-regulated switches, but to figure them out requires much more. Our recent work on sleep is a case in point, I think.’