Three neuroscientists who made significant breakthroughs in brain research and applied their findings to clinical disorders won health awards. Among the four education award recipients were two professors who created a new approach to teaching introductory physics.
The foundation established these annual prizes in 1986 to honor people who have made significant contributions toward improvements in health and education worldwide. David Mahoney, chairman and CEO of the foundation, presented the four $50,000 awards at the dinner. In the afternoon preceding the ceremony, the recipients met for a symposium at New York's Museum of Modern Art to share their ideas and research accomplishments.
Anders Bjorklund, a professor of histology at the University of Lund in Sweden, and Fred H. Gage, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, shared one of the health awards for pioneering cell- transplantation techniques to treat brain damage in neurodegenerative diseases once thought to be irreversible. The two scientists have worked, both in collaboration and independently, to develop brain cell-replacement techniques and gene therapies to treat Parkinson's disease, which is characterized by the gradual impairment of patients' motor functions.
Says Gage, "The patients still have the ability to move--the damage is such that they are slow to respond to the brain's commands. So, once a patient begins something, it is difficult to stop." For instance, he explains, a person with Par-kinson's will walk into a wall because he or she is unable to either stop or turn away in time to avoid it.
"The brain cells that are damaged are like the clutch of a car," Bjorklund said at the symposium. "The engine is okay, but the patient has difficulty in switching the gears." The "clutch" consists of neurons that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that allows communication between different parts of the brain in order to coordinate movements. Bjorklund's research has concentrated on grafting neurons into the brain to replace dead and dying dopamine-producing brain cells. Until he showed that this was possible, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's were considered completely irreversible. In a parallel line of research, Gage has been working on genetically engineering the donor cells to endow them with specific properties. He has developed a method to alter easily obtainable cells from the patient's own skin, and introduce these into the brain.
Currently, Bjorklund is heading clinical trials in Sweden, testing the brain cell-transplantation techniques in patients with Parkinson's disease. In describing the trials at the conference, he said that the early results have been very promising.
Bjorklund received his M.D. in 1969 from the University of Lund, and has been with the neurobiology section of the department of cell biology there since 1966. He has been a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences since 1989.
Gage, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1976. Before his appointment there in 1985, he served on the faculty of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and the University of Lund.
The second health award went to Larry R. Squire, also of UC- San Diego, for his research on the brain and human memory. The members of the nominating committee for the health awards cited his investigations as laying the groundwork for understanding how memory is affected by factors such as aging, trauma, and disease. He was among the first researchers to show that memory was not a single faculty of the brain, and in fact comprises several systems that involve different parts of the organ.
"Memory is not just in the hippocampus any more," he said at the symposium, with reference to previous attempts to correlate brain functions with specific areas of the brain. Through his research with amnesiacs, Squire has classified the very process of memory into two types of functions-- declarative and nondeclarative--and related these to different parts of the brain. While the hippocampus and associated parts are responsible for learning and remembering facts and events (declarative memory), nondeclarative memory functions such as the acquisition of skills and habits were shown to be independent of this area. Using newly developed brain-imaging techniques on patients with amnesia, Squire and his colleagues were the first to observe damage in the hippocampus. That these patients still possessed normal capabilities for skills and habits validated Squire's belief that the two types of memory were independent.
Squire came to UC-San Diego in 1970 as a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and is currently also a staff research scientist at the San Diego Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He obtained his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968 and did postdoctoral studies at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y. He is the president-elect of the Society for Neuroscience, which he served as secretary in 1988-90.
The education awards this year honored people whose work has influenced precollege education. Priscilla W. Laws, a professor of physics at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., and Ronald K. Thornton, a professor of research in physics and education at Tufts University, Medford, Mass., jointly received an award for developing a program--Workshop Physics--to teach the fundamentals of physics in the classroom, which has, according to the award citation, boosted achievement rates in the subject. Instead of using the traditional lecture and laboratory-based approach, the program involves sophisticated computer tools and interactive workshops to induce students to grasp, through experience, fundamental concepts and gain the skills necessary for learning physics.
Marie M. Clay, a professor, emerita, of developmental psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Gay Su Pinnell, an associate professor in the Ohio State University College of Education, received an award for the development and dissemination of an early-intervention program called "Reading Recovery" to improve learning skills in young children.
Awardees are nominated by a committee of leading researchers in the respective fields. The final selections are made by an independent panel of jurors, who are also prominent researchers in the given areas of interest. Recently the foundation made a $25 million commitment to neuroscience. Keeping with this focus, it has, since last year, channeled the health award to researchers who have made significant contributions in applying basic research in neuroscience to the problems of human health and disease.
Neeraja Sankaran is a science writer at the Cancer Research Institute in New York City.