Israeli foundation honors American neurobiologists

Dr Robert W. Wurtzis is one of two American neurobiologists who were awarded the Dan David Prize this year.An Israeli-administered foundation has awarded two American and one Israeli scientists with a cash prize of $1 million for their research in …

Dr Robert W. Wurtzis is one of two American neurobiologists who were awarded the Dan David Prize this year.An Israeli-administered foundation has awarded two American and one Israeli scientists with a cash prize of $1 million for their research in neurobiology.

Americans Dr. Robert H. Wurtz, Dr. William T. Newsome III and Israeli Dr. Amiram Grinvald shared the prize for the future dimension portion of the Dan David Prize, for having revolutionized neurobiology by showing that higher mental processes can be analyzed in the intact behaving primate in terms of individual nerve cells and cellular populations.

Every year, the Dan David Prize awards $1 million each to three individuals or groups for outstanding achievement in one of three time dimensions – past, present and future. Considered one of the most prestigious international scientific awards, the prize was established by Dan David, president of Photo Me International PLC.

Headquartered at Tel Aviv University, the international enterprise encourages innovative interdisciplinary research and values excellence, justice and creativity. As part of the regulations for the prizewinners, winners donate 10% of their prize money to outstanding doctoral students at universities around the world, thereby fostering the next generation of scholars, according to the foundation.

The Dan David Prize is an ongoing quest to recognize and award for those who, as Dan David said upon presenting the recipients with their prizes, “help us understand what we were in the past, to help us to live better today or in the present, and those that further our knowledge and dreams to improve the future.”

This year’s awards were presented at a ceremony at Tel Aviv University earlier this month.

Stanford University’s Newsome was awarded the prize for his research on neurons and how they help the eye – human or animal – detect prey. According to the award announcement, he developed a new level of understanding of how the visual system works, by researching primates by inserting a device an inch above and behind the ear that detects objects as they move across the field of vision. These cells may notice a fly buzzing from left to right or a bird taking off. This was the first time scientists understood the direct link between a single neuron firing and being able to perceive movement.

“I have discovered and mapped out a special pathway in the cerebral cortex in monkeys and humans,” Newsome explained. “Motion is special in many ways. Motion alerts us to prey. There are standard pathways that allow us to see colors. This is sort of an early warning system for the brain.”

Newsome has worked the past 15 years at Stanford in the School of Medicine’s Department of Neurobiology in Palo Alto, Calif. Before that, he worked as a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and at the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Md.

“It’s a major international scientific prize, and of course, an incredible honor. It’s by far the biggest award I’ve ever received,” said Newsome.

Wurtz’s research focused on understanding how the brain processes different aspects of the visual scene in different places, segregating color, and processing motion and form. He developed techniques for studying the activity of single visual neurons in an alert monkey trained to carry out behavioral tasks. His studies enabled careful analysis of neuronal properties without the artifacts induced by anesthesia and paralysis, and more importantly, opened up the possibility of studying cognitive and behavioral questions on a physiological level.

Wertz focused on the human being’s visual coordination of movement. Generally speaking, Wurtz was the first to identify that not only the cells of the brain, but even single neurons are responsible for visual co-ordination managed in real time by our brain. His research sought to understand the fundamental brain mechanisms that allow sensory-motor co-ordination, ranging from day-to-day activities to more demanding athletic precision.

Wurtz researched intra-cranial self-stimulation in the James Olds’ laboratory at the University of Michigan. In 1966 he joined the Laboratory of Neurobiology of the National Institute of Mental Health, where he began research on the visual system and its correlation to the behavior of monkeys. During this period he spent a year as a visiting scientist at Cambridge University in England before becoming founder and chief of the Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research in 1978.

Today Wurtz is the Senior Investigator at the Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research and is a member of the Scientific Board of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is also a non-resident Fellow at the Salk Instute.

The Dan David Prize also honored native son Dr. Amiram Grinvald in recognition of his innovative methods and his vision of sensory system function, which have significantly changed the way these systems are currently viewed by neurobiologists.

Grinvald of the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department is considered the world leader in functional optical imaging. He was the first to use the term optical imaging in a paper published in 1984. Technical innovation developed by Dr. Grinvald has had a profound impact on neurosciences. Visualizing electrical activity in the living brain, in real time, has been realized through Grinvald’s method of optical imaging based on molecular probes called voltage-sensitive-dyes.

In the last 19 years, Dr. Grinvald has developed a second novel optical brain-mapping approach. Based on tracking color changes in the blood by supplying oxygen, Grinvald was able to identify the exact time and place in which nerve cells consume oxygen from the blood-dense micro-circulation system. The high resolution achieved by optical imaging enabled him to fully map individual cortical columns, the brain’s so-called “microprocessors”. These included visual system microprocessors related to shape, color, and motion perception.

Grinvald is Director of Murray H. & Meyer Grodetsky Center for Research of Higher Brain Functions at the Weizmann Institute of Science and is the incumbent of the Helen and Norman Asher Professorial Chair in Brain Research. He is also the Foreign Director of the Max Planck Institute for Medicine at Heidelberg and guest staff member at the Frontier Research Program at Riken in Japan. Grinvald was awarded the Koerber’s 2000 Europe Prize.


Grinvald’s accomplishments have made it possible to answer many unresolved questions in systems-neuroscience and to advance substantially its clinical application. In the US, Europe and Japan, clinical applications in neurosurgery operating rooms are currently being accomplished; Optical imaging has enabled neurosurgeons to delineate functional borders prior to excision of brain tumors or epileptic foci. Furthermore, the technique of intrinsic optical imaging has led to a quantum leap in ophthalmic diagnostics offering early diagnostics for older people, which may lead in the future to a treatment preventing blindness.