Professor Gero Miesenböck has been awarded The Brain Prize 2013 for his pioneering role in developing 'optogenetics', a revolutionary technique which uses light to control sets of nerve cells in order to reveal much about the brain.
Oxford University neuroscientists have now been named as winners in two out of the three years this major new prize has been awarded. Professor Péter Somogyi was a winner of the first Brain prize in 2011 for establishing methods for characterising nerve cell circuits in the brain, sharing the award with two others.
Professor Miesenböck is Director of the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at the University of Oxford. He shares the €1 million European award with five other scientists in Germany and the USA who developed the revolutionary optogenetics approach.
They are 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.
Professor Miesenböck was the first scientist to establish the principle of optogenetic control in a pioneering experiment reported in 2002. He induced genetically modified neurons to fire electrical impulses by shining light on them. In this way, the function of the nerve cells could be influenced remotely, using flashes of light instead of direct electrical connections.
In 2005 he was first to use optogenetic tools to control the behaviour of an animal, engineering fruit flies to harbour light-sensitive nerve cells in different parts of the brain.
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.
'Optogenetics is a form of wireless communication in which nerve cells in the brain are programmed genetically so that you can control their electrical activity with an optical remote control,' Professor Miesenböck explains.
'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.'
He 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.'
Optogenetics enhances understanding of how living nerve cells work and of how the brain controls behaviour, providing opportunities for basic research as well as holding practical benefits.
The Brain Prize committee said of this year's award: '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.'
Professor Miesenböck says: 'What optogenetics can help us do, by studying animal models such as flies, is to pinpoint the cells that are causally responsible for our behaviour.
'For instance, optogenetics could be a means to identify nerve cell groups that cause specific diseases as targets for medicines. In the more distant future, there could be the possibility of using optogenetic manipulations directly in humans, in order to restore neural signals that have been corrupted or lost because of injury or disease,' he suggests.
In 2010, optogenetics was named Method of the Year across all fields of science by the leading journal Nature Methods, and ‘Breakthrough of the Decade’ by the journal Science.
The Brain Prize is awarded annually by the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation, a Copenhagen-based charitable, non-profit organization. The prize will be awarded by HRH Frederik, The Crown Prince of Denmark, in a ceremony on 2 May 2013.