This year’s Frontiers of Knowledge Award for the Biomedicine category has gone to the neuroscientists Edward Boyden, Karl Deisseroth and Gero Miesenböck. Their work involves the development of optogenetics, a technique enabling the study of the brain with unprecedented resolution, opening up new possibilities for research.
Thousands of groups worldwide have started to use optogenetics to deepen understanding of functions such as sleep, temporal perception and decision making. This technique is also useful in understanding conditions such as epilepsy, depression, some forms of blindness and Parkinson’s disease. “If we imagine the brain as a computer, optogenetics is a key that enables us to send extremely precise commands”, Edward Boyden, one of the award winners, explained after the jury’s decision was announced. “It is a tool whereby we can manipulate the brain with exquisite precision”.
A constantly evolving technique
Optogenetics allows the selective control of neural activity simply by applying light of the right wavelength. “The main application of optogenetics is basic research, understanding how the brain works”, in the words of another of the award winners, Karl Deisseroth.
The first steps of this technique in the early nineties were difficult. Award winner Karl Miesenböck remembers that reviewers of his first submission “completely missed the point”, concluding that “innovative techniques always take time to filter through”. However, optogenetics, which is not yet in use on humans, has continued to evolve, successfully expanding the range of brain functions that can be studied through the action of proteins that react at different speeds to different types of light. The award winners stated that this technique will enable the development of much more specific drugs, with much greater precision, for the treatment of mental and neurological conditions.
Edward Boyden, Karl Deisseroth and Gero Miesenböck
A modern science
The Biomedicine category of the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards recognizes an area of modern science that studies the biological aspects of medicine to develop new drugs and treatments. Through this award, the BBVA Foundation has been recognizing the work of scientific pioneers who have advanced our knowledge and treatment of serious conditions, including cancer, using revolutionary techniques since 2008.