For his pioneering research on plasticity, the brain’s remarkable capacity to modify its structure and function, UC San Francisco’s Michael M. Merzenich, PhD, has been awarded the 2016 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.
Merzenich, professor emeritus in the UCSF Department of Otolaryngology, shares the prize with Carla J. Shatz, PhD, professor of biology and neurobiology at Stanford University, and Eve Marder, PhD, professor of biology at Brandeis University. The trio received the prize, which carries a cash award of $1 million, “for the discovery of mechanisms that allow experience and neural activity to remodel brain function,” according to the Kavli Prize announcement, made Thursday.
Beginning in the 1950s, neuroscientists had shown that the areas of the brain’s cortex devoted to sensory experience – noticing a touch on the skin, distinguishing objects in the visual field, or perceiving the various sound frequencies in music – are parceled into organized “maps.” These maps were long thought to be hard-wired by adulthood, with fixed boundaries, a belief that had major implications for medicine: patients who suffered brain damage from stroke, for example, were thought to be unable to regain much of any function they had lost.
But in a series of classic experiments, Merzenich and colleagues showed that even in adulthood the brain’s cortical maps are in fact “plastic” – capable of reorganizing themselves in response to experience – and that it might be possible to create therapies to restore brain function lost through injury or illness.
Merzenich applied these insights to the development of cochlear implants to restore hearing. Having established some of the neurophysiological underpinnings of present cochlear implant designs beginning in the early 1970s, he later helped conduct one of the first clinical trials of multichannel cochlear implants. These trials paved the way for the eventual commercialization of UCSF-designed devices in the late 1980s by Advanced Bionics, still one of the world’s leading manufacturers of cochlear implants.
The Kavli Prizes are a partnership between the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. The prizes, which recognize scientists for pioneering advances in our understanding of existence at its biggest, smallest, and most complex scales, are awarded every two years in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.
The award ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 6 in Oslo, Norway.
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Watch Michael Merzenich’s 2009 TED Talk about his research on ways to harness the brain’s plasticity to enhance our skills and recover lost function:
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