Prof. Turrigiano wins HFSP Nakasone Award

Research in homeostatic synaptic scaling, which keeps brain activity from becoming imbalanced, lauded

Photo/Mike Lovett

Professor Gina Turrigiano

Your brain is the most complex machine in the universe, says biology professor Gina Turrigiano. “Amazingly, unlike, say, your car, it is capable of tuning itself up so that most of the time it will continue to work reliably. Synaptic scaling is one important mechanism that allows our brains to do this.”
The Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) has recently recognized Turrigiano’s research, bestowing her with the 2012 HFSP Nakasone Award for introducing the concept of synaptic scaling. She is the third recipient of the HFSP Nakasone Award, which was first given in 2010. It honors the vision of former Prime Minister of Japan Yasuhiro Nakasone for his efforts to launch a program that supports international collaboration and fosters early career scientists in a global context. The HFSP Nakasone Award is designed to honor scientists who have undertaken frontier-moving research in biology, encompassing conceptual, experimental or technological breakthroughs.
“Individual neurons can sense whether their activity is appropriate, and if not can scale their synaptic inputs up or down to bring their activity back into the correct range,” says Turrigiano. “This synaptic scaling keeps activity in our brains from becoming imbalanced, which otherwise would lead to states like epilepsy or catatonia. Dysfunctions in this mechanism likely contribute to many different neurological disorders, including autism. ”
Turrigiano adds that synaptic scaling also allows our brains to change connections to learn and store memories without disrupting the basic functioning of our brain circuits.
According to the HFSP award posting, the concept of synaptic scaling was introduced to resolve an apparent paradox: how can neurons and neural circuits maintain both stability and flexibility?
The number and strength of synapses shows major changes during development and in learning and memory. Such changes could potentially lead to massive changes in neuronal output that could have harmful effects on the stability of neuronal networks and memory storage.
Awardees receive an unrestricted research grant of $10,000 along with a medal and a personalized certificate. The award ceremony will be held at the annual meeting of HFSP awardees in the Republic of Korea in July 2012. During that time Turrigiano will present the HFSP Nakasone Lecture.
“Korea will be really interesting,” says Turrigiano. “Science in Asia is booming right now, with many governments putting major resources into fundamental science. Let’s hope the U.S. can keep up in the decades to come.”
Turrigiano says that while she is thrilled to receive recognition, credit for this work goes also to her collaborator of many years, Professor Sacha Nelson, and to the members of her lab, past and present, all of whom have made critical contributions to understanding the mechanisms and function of synaptic scaling.
“I also credit the wonderful scientific environment at Brandeis, which encourages people to collaborate and to take risks in their science,” says Turrigiano.
Professor Eve Marder, chair of the biology department, says it’s the way that Turrigiano formulates scientific questions that’s so unusual.
“She’s very clear and direct and goes to the heart of the matter,” says Marder, who has worked with Turrigiano since she was a post-doctorate. “What showed, even then, was this clarity of thinking and her very remarkable ability to do the direct and authoritative experiment.”
Prestigious awards such as the McArthur Foundation Fellowship and the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award have also honored her work.

Categories: Research, Science and Technology

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