Brain Prize for Optogenetics

11 March 2013


Professor Gero Miesenböck has been awarded ‘The Brain Prize’ for his pioneering work in optogenetics.

Miesenböck, Director of the Programme on Mind and Machine at the Oxford Martin School, was chosen for this prestigious international prize from the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation “for the invention and refinement of optogenetics.”

“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,” explains Miesenböck.

The technique 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.

Miesenböck was the first scientist who modified nerve cells genetically to produce light-responsive pigments. By shining light on the pigment-producing cells he caused them to become electrically active. The function of the nerve cells could thus be influenced remotely, using flashes of light instead of direct electrical connections. Miesenböck was also the first to use the technique of optogenetics to remote-control the behaviour of an animal, which he had bred to contain light-sensitive nerve cells in its brain.

Miesenböck shares the €1 million award with five other scientists: 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. 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.

The Brain Prize is endowed by the Copenhagen-based Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation. The prize will be awarded by HRH Frederik, The Crown Prince of Denmark, in a ceremony on May 2nd, 2013.

The Selection Committee, comprising an international jury of distinguished scientists, commented: “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.”

Miesenböck said: “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.”

The Brain Prize 2013 is the second major international accolade which Gero Miesenböck has received in the past year. In April 2012 he was awarded Belgium’s top science prize, the InBev-Baillet Latour International Health Prize, also for the invention of optogenetics.

Professor Miesenböck is Director of The Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour (CNCB), an autonomous research centre within the University of Oxford. The CNCB is supported by a Strategic Award from the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. It also houses part of the Oxford Martin School’s Programme on Mind and Machine.