The award, presented by the Rosenstiel Center of Brandeis University in Massachusetts, is in recognition of the recipients' ‘contributions to the discovery and applications of optogenetics’. In addition to Gero Miesenböck, Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and Edward S. Boyden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are honoured.
Optogenetics is the technology which allows scientists to control the brain’s activity by genetically engineering neurons to fire in response to light. Gero Miesenböck laid the foundations of the field when he reported, in 2002, that he had genetically modified nerve cells 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 instead of via intrusive electrical connections. Miesenböck was also the first to use optogenetics to remote-control the behaviour of an animal.
Hundreds of scientists across the world now use optogenetics to manipulate brain activity in animals, exploring the neurobiology of phenomena such as decision-making and neurodegenerative diseases.