Karl Deisseroth wins Kyoto Prize for seminal role in creation, use of optogenetics

The award, which includes a gift of 100 million yen (about $913,000), recognizes the neuroscientist for pioneering and advancing a technology for studying brain circuits.

Karl Deisseroth received this year's Kyoto Prize for advanced technology.
Steve Fisch

Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, a Stanford University professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, will receive the 2018 Kyoto Prize for advanced technology.

Deisseroth will be honored for pioneering optogenetics and the optogenetics-enabled “development of causal systems neuroscience,” the award citation notes, referring to the science of establishing causal relationships between nerve-circuit activity and behavior, rather than merely observing correlations between them.

Optogenetics allows scientists to manipulate the activity of nerve cells in an animal’s brain. Genes encoding light-sensitive proteins, called opsins, are inserted into specific nerve cells. Then a pulse of laser light, delivered through a hair-thin optical fiber implanted in the brain, can turn these cells’ signaling activity on or off. By observing how the animal behaves when the signaling is either active or inactive, scientists can deduce the cells’ function. The tool has enabled researchers to better understand brain disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and Parkinson’s disease.

“A brilliant and innovative investigator, Karl has created a revolutionary technology that has broadened our understanding of brain disorders and may one day yield treatments to the millions with these disorders,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “His receipt of the Kyoto Prize is inordinately well-deserved and the product of his unmatched scientific vision.”

The Kyoto Prize has been awarded annually since 1985 by the Inamori Foundation, a Japanese charitable organization, in three separate categories: advanced technology, basic sciences, and arts and philosophy. The prizes, which consist of a diploma, a 20-karat gold medal and a gift of 100 million yen (about $913,000), will be awarded at a ceremony in Kyoto, Japan, on Nov 10.

A delegation from the foundation visited Deisseroth at Stanford to inform him that he would be receiving the award. “I can tell you I didn’t do much math or engage in abstract thought for the rest of that day,” Deisseroth said. Deisseroth, who also holds the D.H. Chen Professorship, is the youngest recipient of the prize ever.

Of his research, he said, “This technology has been a long time in the making and has undergone a lot of development and improvement from the outstanding students, postdoctoral fellows and staff members in the lab. Meanwhile, we and others around the world are continuing to achieve new discoveries and insights with optogenetics.”

Deisseroth’s lab developed the basic components of optogenetics between 2004 and 2009. Between 2008 and 2018, his lab elucidated the inner-workings of opsins, allowing them to develop variations of these molecules and enabling more-richly detailed, precise and versatile exploration of neural circuits. Today, thousands of laboratories around the world routinely employ Deisseroth’s methodology and opsins to identify the brain circuitry responsible for specific behaviors, both healthy and maladaptive. Their findings have given rise to thousands of publications in peer-reviewed journals.

Deisseroth’s previous prizes include the Harvey Prize and Fresenius Research Prize in 2017; and the Dickson Prize in Medicine, the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Science in 2015. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and Stanford Bio-X.

The late Leonard Herzenberg, PhD, a long-time professor of genetics at Stanford, received the Kyoto Prize in 2006. Several other recipients, including molecular biologist Sydney Brenner, PhD, magnetic-resonance-imaging pioneer Paul Lauterbur, PhD, and stem-cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.



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