Neuroscientist Wins Prize for Discovering How the Brain Stays Tuned

Gina Turrigiano
Gina Turrigiano

The brain is the most complex machine in the known universe, says biology professor Gina Turrigiano. “Amazingly, unlike your car, it is capable of tuning itself up so that most of the time it will continue to work reliably,” she says.

That’s not all. During critical periods, such as early development, learning, and memory formation and storage, neural circuits rev up in number and strength, increasing their firing activity. Yet paradoxically, even in the midst of demonstrating such flexibility, neurons also manage to maintain a steady state — the kind of stability without which big problems, like epilepsy and catatonia — perhaps even autism — can develop.

Turrigiano, who recently received a prestigious international science award for her work, says the fundamental challenge of our brains is to preserve the integrity of the neural circuits that keep the brain humming along while at the same time allowing mechanisms to shape and fine-tune the function of those circuits.

Just how does the brain manage such mental acrobatics? Turrigiano’s research has helped answer this bedeviling question. She and her lab identified a mechanism she calls “synaptic scaling” that helps the brain keep its cool — maintaining neural circuit stability — even when neurons are firing off like gangbusters.

For developing this concept, she received the Human Frontier Science Program Organization’s 2012 Nakasone Award. Honoring former Prime Minister of Japan Yasuhiro Nakasone, the prize recognizes scientists who have undertaken research in biology, encompassing conceptual, experimental or technological breakthroughs.

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