Stanford Pioneer in Brain Research Wins Prestigious Kyoto Prize

 (Stanford University/ Deisseroth Lab)

Karl Deisseroth, a Stanford University professor of bioengineering and psychiatry, has been awarded an international prize worth more than $900,000 for his work in illuminating brain activity with light. The exact amount of the prize was 100 million yen.

Deisseroth is receiving the 2018 Kyoto Prize for advanced technology. Awards are also granted for basic sciences, and arts and philosophy. Some of its recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Deisseroth, the youngest person to ever receive the prize, is being honored for developing optogenetics, a technology that uses light-sensitive proteins to manipulate brain cell activity. The method allows scientists to glean more information about brain disorders and to probe how the nervous system works.

"It is  humbling to see all the distinguished people who have won the Kyoto Prize, and to be listed with them. It is wonderful to see pure basic science discoveries recognized in this way," said Deisseroth.

The technique developed by Deisseroth and his team manipulates cellular activity by delivering a pulse of light to a particular cell through an optical fiber that has been implanted in the animal’s brain. The method yields information on how brain cells give rise to sensations, memories and actions.

The Kyoto prize medal. (Inamori Foundation)

“A brilliant and innovative investigator, Karl has created a revolutionary technology that has broadened our understanding of brain disorders and may one day yield treatments to the millions with these disorders,” said Dr. Lloyd Minor, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, in a statement. “His receipt of the Kyoto Prize is inordinately well-deserved and the product of his unmatched scientific vision."

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Deisseroth has said his research was motivated by a desire to better understand psychiatric disorders, the leading cause of years of life lost to death or disability.

Deisseroth’s research, developed between 2004 and 2009, is used by laboratories around the world.

"Thousands of laboratories around the world have used optogenetics to satisfy their own curiosity about the natural world, and to test ideas in a broad range of systems and species," he said. "Many people are also studying brain diseases, and optogenetics-guided clinical trials have already started with some success, bringing a new kind of hope to people affected by these diseases such as substance dependence and depression."

What makes optogenetics so groundbreaking is its level of precision in controlling defined activity within specific cells, according to I-Han Chou, senior editor at the journal "Nature".

"If you imagine the brain as this city, up until now we have been looking at it as if from space," Chou told the World Economic Forum site. "We haven't had the tools to do anything beyond seeing what the whole city block is doing. What you actually want to know is what the individual components of the city are, what the people are doing, and what's the information being transported from one part of the city to another."

The technique could transform how neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease are treated.

"When things go wrong with the brain it is just so devastating. One of the hopes for optogenetics is that if it can work in humans, it might be used as a tool for restoring brain function," Chou added.

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