Gero Miesenböck wins top Belgian science prize

30 April 2012


Professor Gero Miesenböck has been awarded the prestigious InBev-Baillet Latour 2012 Health Prize for his pioneering research in the field of neurosciences.

This most important scientific prize in Belgium, the InBev-Baillet Latour Prize is awarded to promote fundamental research and its implications for human health. It was awarded to Professor Miesenböck this year for his work on optogenetic approaches to manipulate neuronal activity and to control animal behaviour, a technique which has revolutionized neuroscience.

Miesenböck, who is Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Mind and Machine (a research project in the new Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour) 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. By 2005 he was also the first to use optogenetic tools to control the behaviour of an animal. He engineered fruit flies to harbour light-sensitive nerve cells in different parts of the brain.

Explaining optogenetics, Miesenböck said, “It 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.” This technique allows neuroscientists to elucidate how living nerve cells work, and provides advanced understanding of how the brain controls behaviour. Miesenböck introduced encoded sensors and encodable phototransduction components as optogenetic tools to visualize or control brain activity.

The ability to control brain activity through optogenetics not only provides opportunities for basic research, but holds practical benefits as well. Miesenböck added: “What optogenetics can help us do, by studying animal models such as flies, is to pin-point 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 a more distant future, there could also 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.

The InBev-Baillet Latour Fund was established to promote outstanding achievements in the area of science, academy or art. The Prize, worth 250,000 euro, is intended to promote fundamental research and its implications for human health.