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Stanford University School of Medicine

Karl Deisseroth wins 4-million-euro Fresenius Research Prize

Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, is an inquisitive neuroscientist, innovative bioengineer and practicing psychiatrist. In his push to determine which neural circuits are jamming up to cause serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia, autism and depression, Deisseroth has been struck by enlightenment twice: He has pioneered not just one but two uniquely productive research technologies that have drawn the attention of fellow researchers around the world.

Now Deisseroth, who's also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has drawn the attention of the Else Kröner-Fresenius Foundation, which once every four years bestows the Fresenius Research Prize -- at 4 million euros, the world's largest award in monetary terms for scientific achievement -- on a single researcher. At a May 31 ceremony in Berlin, Deisseroth was honored with this award for three distinct contributions to the medical field: optogenetics, hydrogel-tissue chemistry and research on depression. His work is celebrated in the video above.

Optogenetics, pioneered in Deisseroth’s lab between 2004 and 2009, lets scientists precisely manipulate nerve-cell activity in freely moving animals. Genes encoding light-sensitive proteins are inserted into targeted nerve cells. As a result, these cells’ signaling activity can be turned on or off literally at the flick of a switch by a pulse of laser light, delivered through a hair-thin optical fiber implanted into the animal’s brain. By observing the effects of these manipulations on the animal’s behavior, scientists can deduce the role played by particular nerve cells, relays and circuits.

Hydrogel-tissue chemistry, developed in Deisseroth’s lab between 2009 and 2016, renders intact tissue samples simultaneously transparent to light and permeable to bulky molecular probes. It involves replacing the tissue’s fatty substances, which impede transparency, with a hydrogel matrix that permits not only the transmission of light but also the transit of large molecules, such as labeled antibodies or oligonucleotides, which can pinpoint the presence of particular proteins or DNA sequences on or in the tissue’s constituent cells.

Aided by these advanced techniques, Deisseroth and his team have teased apart the separate neural circuits implicated in different aspects of depression, such as anhedonia (the failure to experience pleasure) versus hopelessness (the inability to rise to a challenge).

As I wrote in our news release on the award:

It’s rare for a researcher to achieve even one breakthrough technology. The development of two such game-changers, as in Deisseroth’s case, is widely considered remarkable. Still, he said, 'Our primary goal isn’t to develop new methods for their own sake, but to design techniques that help us answer the questions we want to answer. We’re just biologists.'

Previously: Nature Methods names optogenetics its "method of the year", Lightning Strikes Twice: Optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth's newest technique renders tissues transparent, yet structurally intactHyperactivity in brain's "self-control" center may stifle the pleasure-seeking urge and Peering deeply -- and quite literally -- into the intact brain: A video fly-through
EFKS award movie 2017 from Passanten Filmproduktion
Photo by Steve Fisch

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