Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D., Recognized for Global Impact of Optogenetics with Prestigious Keio Prize

Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D., Recognized for Global Impact of Optogenetics with Prestigious Keio Prize

Posted: September 12, 2014

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Foundation Scientific Council member, Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D., of Stanford University, will receive the 2014 Keio Medical Science Prize, from the Keio University in Japan, an annual prize established in 1995 to recognize outstanding and creative achievements of researchers in the fields of medicine and the life sciences, in particular those contributing to scientific developments in medicine. The Keio Prize aims to promote worldwide advances in medicine and the life sciences, to encourage the expansion of researcher networks throughout the world, and to contribute to the well-being of humankind.

In announcing the 2014 Prize recipients, the Keio University Medical Science Fund said, “By making optogenetics a reality and leading this new field, Dr. Deisseroth has made enormous contributions towards the fundamental understanding of brain function in health and disease.”

Dr. Deisseroth developed the technology known as optogenetics, now in use at thousands of labs around the world, with the early support of a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant. Optogenetics enables scientists to “turn” specific brain cells “on” and “off” and observe the corresponding effects on behavior in living animals. This new technology is transforming psychiatry and neuroscience from fields of behavioral observation to fields of causal science, linking specific brain activity to specific behaviors.

Dr. Deisseroth’s lab made the technology openly available and offered training courses in how to use it, so now scientists worldwide are working with optogenetics to decode the circuitry of the brain, in both healthy and diseased states. In addition to gaining fundamental insights into how the brain creates behavior, they are also beginning to identify the brain mechanisms underlying depression, schizophrenia, addiction, autism, Parkinson’s disease and many other illnesses. Scientists are also using optogenetics to identify how different medications and treatments work in the brain.

"Optogenetics has revolutionized neuroscience," says Robert Malenka, M.D., Ph.D., Foundation Scientific Council member and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, who was Dr. Deisseroth’s postdoctoral advisor. "It has allowed neuroscientists to manipulate neural activity in a rigorous and sophisticated way and in a manner that was unimaginable 15 to 20 years ago."

Dr. Deisseroth says of winning the prize: “It is a tremendous honor to receive the 2014 Keio Medical Science Prize, in recognition of our efforts to develop optogenetics, and to apply this technology to deepen the understanding of the brain in health and disease. This Prize is particularly meaningful because optogenetics originated as a tool to study the basic science of biology, not medical illness, and yet is enabling discovery of insights into disease states, as well as into healthy brain function. From both the neuroscience and psychiatry perspectives, I hope that this story helps further encourage and strengthen fundamental biology research.”

Read a 2010 article in Scientific American in which Dr. Deisseroth describes the explorations that led to the development of optogenetics. He argues for the necessity of un-directed basic research, driven by curiosity rather than by a pre-determined end goal. That kind of exploration, he says, allowed him and his team to figure out how to get a tool like optogenetics to work. He also credits the Foundation for its willingness to support this kind of discovery-based work in its early stages, saying that “the credibility the NARSAD Grant gave us had a disproportionately large effect. It really launched us.”

Read the Keio University press release.

Read the Stanford University press release.