Public Release: 

Oxford's Gero Miesenböck is awarded The Brain Prize 2013 for his pioneering work on optogenetics

CNCB Director is among recipients of prestigious international prize from Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation

University of Oxford

Oxford, UK 11 March 2013 - Professor Gero Miesenböck, Director of the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at the University of Oxford, has been awarded The Brain Prize 2013 "for the invention and refinement of optogenetics."

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."

Gero Miesenböck says: "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."

Miesenböck 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."

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.


Notes to editors

Gero Miesenböck: Founder of Optogenetics

Gero Miesenböck talks about optogenetics

Renowned as the first scientist to establish the principle of optogenetic control in a pioneering experiment reported in 2002, Miesenböck induced genetically modified neurons to fire electrical impulses by shining light on them. 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.

"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," he explains.

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.

Professor Miesenböck adds: "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 adds.

The Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour

The Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour (CNCB) is 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.

The mission of the CNCB is to understand how intelligent behaviour emerges from the physical interaction of nerve cells. Much of this research is done in fruit flies, which offer unparalleled insight into brain processes with direct relevance to human health.

CNCB media contact:

Karen David
Tel 44-0-1865-512662
mobile 44-0-7989 439291

The Brain Prize

Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Prize - 'The Brain Prize' - is awarded to one or more scientists who have distinguished themselves by an outstanding contribution to European neuroscience.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.