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NIMH's Dr. Mortimer Mishkin to be awarded National Medal of Science

National Institutes of Health intramural researcher Mortimer Mishkin, Ph.D., will be awarded the National Medal of Science at a White House ceremony later this month. Mishkin is chief of the National Institute of Mental Health's (NIMH) Section on Cognitive Neuroscience, and acting chief of its Laboratory of Neuropsychology. He is the first NIMH intramural scientist to receive the medal, which the President presents each year for outstanding contributions to science. Mishkin is among 10 recipients this year.

"I'm hugely honored. I also feel very happy because it reflects on the support I've received from NIH/NIMH all these years," said Mishkin, who has worked at the NIMH Intramural Research Program on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. since 1955.

In a series of meticulous studies spanning more than five decades, Mishkin and colleagues discovered much about how the brain processes input from the senses and encodes memory.

"There is no more complex piece of matter in the universe than the human brain, and so the complexity is a huge challenge," he explained. "Each brain area is important for a different kind of behavioral or mental function, yet no area is an island. Every area is part of a circuit. So we've been identifying pathways and trying to figure out how they work."

Due in part to work spearheaded by Mishkin, science now understands much about the pathways for vision, hearing and touch, and about how those processing streams connect with brain structures important for memory.

In nonhuman primates, Mishkin's team discovered that the brain uses divergent pathways to process two different types of memory. Cognitive memory recollection of events and new information is processed by a separate circuit from behavioral memory skills and habits. The cognitive memory circuit courses from the sensory streams through the brain's limbic lobe, an emotion hub, while behavioral memory detours through the basal ganglia, an action hub buried deep inside the brain's outer mantle. In collaboration with British colleagues, Mishkin has recently been applying these insights toward improved understanding and care of children with amnesia.

"This is a moment to celebrate the NIMH Intramural Research Program, which has been a place for innovative science sometimes for science that doesn't get supported anyplace else," said NIMH Director Thomas Insel, M.D. "And Mort's extraordinary contribution is a great example of that providing for this whole field that we now call cognitive neuroscience some of the real fundamentals about how learning and memory and visual and auditory information is processed in the primate brain."

Mishkin said he's buoyed by the enthusiasm and capabilities of the young researchers whom he mentors.

"These youngsters who have the dream of trying to understand something as complex as the brain will drive the process further, because they have skills and techniques beyond any that I was able to acquire when I was their age." he said.

Mishkin is also upbeat about the public's appreciation of science.

"As we're able to learn more about how the brain works and how to fix it, millions of people are going to benefit, and through that process understanding will develop about the role of science in having made all of that possible," said Mishkin.

Despite the huge progress, Mishkin said the field still has much work to do.

"We still need to understand, at a more refined, molecular level, how information is transmitted in the brain," he explained. "We need the tools to visualize, in real time, what is happening through the brain as an event transpires that we are experiencing."

After graduating from Dartmouth College in the mid-l940s, Mishkin pursued graduate work at Yale University and McGill University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1951, and postdoctoral studies at the Institute for Living in New Haven, Conn. He served as chief of the NIMH Intramural Research Program's Laboratory of Neuropsychology from 1980 to 1997 and as its associate director for Basic Science in the mid-1990s. He is also currently a visiting professor at University College London's Institute of Child Health.

Mishkin is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine, and past president of the Society for Neuroscience. Among other honors, he was president of the Division of Physiological and Comparative Psychology of the American Psychological Association in 1969, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The National Medal of Science nominees are selected by a committee of Presidential appointees based on their extraordinary knowledge in, and contributions to their field. Seven other NIH intramural scientists have also received the medal: Drs. Bernard Brodie, Kenneth Cole, Francis Collins, Anthony Fauci, Robert Huebner, Marshall Nirenberg, and Earl Stadtman.

"We NIMH'ers who were aware of Mort's vast knowledge of cognitive neuroscience often referred to him as a national treasure and now it's true!" said Laboratory of Neuropsychology researcher Elizabeth Murray, Ph.D.


Contact: Jules Asher
NIH/National Institute of Mental Health

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NIMH's Dr. Mortimer Mishkin to be awarded National Medal of Science
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