National Academy elects neuroscientist Turrigiano
Prestigious scientific advisory society recognizes preeminent thinkers
Gina Turrigiano, a professor of biology whose pioneering research studies how neurons and circuits change during learning and development, was elected Tuesday to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the nation’s most prestigious scientific society.
The election is the latest in a string of high-profile awards — including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012 and a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2000 — recognizing Turrigiano’s singular contributions to the field of neuroscience over the past two decades. Of the 84 scientists elected to the NAS Tuesday, Turrigiano is the only woman neuroscientist.
“I’m really deeply honored,” Turrigiano said. “It’s awfully good company to join.”
Nearly 200 of the approximately 2,200 members of the NAS are Nobel Prize winners, and election to the elite society is widely viewed as recognition of a researcher’s impact on the course of science. Brandeis now counts 12 faculty who are NAS members, including Turrigiano’s mentor, Eve Marder, the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience.
“I am extremely pleased to see Gina honored in this way,” said Marder, who was elected to the NAS in 2007. “Her work has been instrumental in changing the way we think about plasticity in the nervous system.”
An apparent paradox lies at the heart of Turrigiano’s research: How can neurons and neural circuits maintain both stability and flexibility? Just as the brain needs stability in cortical circuitry to function normally, neurons need flexibility to respond to the demands of learning and memory.
How neurons change — a concept known as “plasticity” — is a broad area of inquiry spearheaded by Turrigiano’s lab in collaboration with another Brandeis professor of biology, Sacha Nelson. Delving further into how neurons and their networks function, Turrigiano in recent years introduced the concept of “synaptic scaling.” This process describes how cells scale up or down the strength and number of their synapses globally to allow individual neurons to maintain a stable, or constant, level of firing.
Too much or too little neuronal firing, for example, may impede learning and memory development, and could be implicated in neurological disorders such as Rett syndrome, epilepsy and autism, says Turrigiano.
“The big push we’re making in the lab now is taking the principles of plasticity and synaptic scaling we have worked out in reduced systems and asking how they function in the brains of behaving animals as they experience the world,” she said today. “How do these principles apply in reality? How do they help brain circuits function better with experience? And what are the rules for making the synaptic changes without destabilizing circuit function?”