Meet Michael Merzenich, 2016 Kavli Prize Winner For Neuroscience

Chosen for this year’s 2016 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, for his pioneering work on the brain’s “plasticity” – its remarkable ability to rewire itself in response to new conditions, a capacity that underlies learning and offers the potential for retraining the brain in neurodevelopmental disorders and diseases, as well as after injuries that occur later in life - was UC San Francisco neuroscientist, Michael M. Merzenich, PhD.

“Michael’s seminal experiments on brain plasticity opened new vistas in our understanding of the brain,” said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “His efforts to translate these basic research findings into new and potential therapies offer hope to patients worldwide. We congratulate him on this great honor.”

Merzenich shared the prize with professor of biology and neurobiology at Stanford University, Carla J. Shatz, PhD, and Eve Marder, PhD, professor of biology at Brandeis University. The trio received the prize “for the discovery of mechanisms that allow experience and neural activity to remodel brain function,” which carries a cash award of $1 million, according to the Kavli Prize announcement made Thursday.

Merzenich began his career in neuroscience in the early 1970s, building on work begun several decades earlier that showed the areas of the brain’s cortex devoted to sensory experience – noticing a touch on the skin, distinguishing objects visually, or perceiving the various sound frequencies in music – are parceled into organized “maps.”

He and colleagues showed that even in adulthood the brain’s cortical maps are, in fact, “plastic”, following a series of classic experiments. These finding led the team to believe that creative therapies to restore brain function that has been limited from birth due to genetic variation, or lost through injury, stroke or illness might actually be possible.

"My colleagues and I are enormously grateful to the citizens of California and the country for so generously supporting our research through more than four decades,” Merzenich said. "I especially want to acknowledge the collaborative help of several hundred scientists and hundreds of patient volunteers who contributed so importantly to the body of work acknowledged by this prize. It has been a great privilege for all of us to be able to bring this science out of our UCSF laboratory into the world, to benefit so many children and adults in need." added Merzenich.

The partnership that drives the Kavli Prizes are between the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. Awarded every two years in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience, the prizes recognize scientists for pioneering advances in our understanding of existence at its biggest, smallest, and most complex scales.

Scheduled for Sept. 6, this year’s Kavli award ceremony will be held in Oslo, Norway.