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Neuroscientist Robert H. Wurtz receives the $500,000 Gruber neuroscience prize

New York, NY, June 15 Robert H. Wurtz, PhD, a pioneer and leader in the field of neurophysiology, is the recipient of the 2010 Neuroscience Prize of The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation. His discoveries of how the brain processes visual information and controls eye movements laid the groundwork for subsequent research into the neurophysiology of visual cognition. This research has led scientists to a deeper understanding of how the brain is organized to produce behavior.

Wurtz, who has spent most of his professional life at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., is also being honored for mentoring and inspiring the research of many others in the broad field of cognitive neuroscience. Wurtz currently serves as an NIH Distinguished Investigator at the National Eye Institute's Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research, a laboratory that he helped establish in 1973 and then headed for its first 24 years.

He will receive the award November 14 in San Diego at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and will deliver a lecture on "Brain Circuits for Active Vision."

"Wurtz opened up the primate brain for analyses of cognitive phenomena at the cellular level, says Sten Grillner, chair of the Selection Advisory Board. "This was a very important step in providing insights into the workings of the brain - an astounding information-processing biological structure that allows for perception, reasoning and action."

Before Wurtz began publishing his seminal studies in 1969 on the physiology of the visual system in the awake monkey, research showing how single neurons in the brain processed visual information was conducted only in anesthetized animals. Wurtz was the first to demonstrate that these experiments could be done successfully in the awake primate. He did this by training monkeys to hold their eyes still for a few seconds while he recorded their neurons as they reacted to moving objects and other visual stimuli.

This technique (now used by scientists around the world) meant that researchers could record the activity of a primate's visual neurons without anesthetizing the animala process that had previously limited such research. For the first time, the physiology of visual behavior itself could be studied.

Wurtz went on to make other unprecedented discoveries. He mapped fields of individual neurons in the awake brain that receive visual information. He elucidated how different cortical areas and subcortical cell groups contribute to visual processing and how subcortical brain structures, such as the superior colliculus and the basal ganglia, initiate eye movements. He also discovered and described some of the complex pathways by which these various structures interact.

Wurtz's work has inspired the research of many others in the broad field of cognitive neuroscience, and he can be regarded as one of the founders of this area of neuroscience (a science that did not even exist when he began his research). As a result, scientists now have a deeper understanding of how the brain processes the sensory signals that underlie perception and the control of movementan understanding that has also helped to unlock some of the neurophysiological mysteries of various brain diseases and conditions, including stroke, Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease.

"Dr. Robert Wurtz is one of those rare individuals in science who invented a field," says Michael E. Goldberg, M.D., David Mahoney Professor of Brain and Behavior in the Departments of Neuroscience, Neurology, Psychiatry and Ophthalmology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. "Before he discovered how to record the activity of visual neurons in awake, behaving monkeys, the study of how the brain processes vision was only done in anesthetized animals, most dramatically by the Nobel-prizewinning research of David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel. Dr. Wurtz realized that vision involved not only visual processing, but also behavior - that attention and spatial processing were as important to the brain's analysis of the visual world as the isolated computation of the visual signal. He first showed that the feature detection properties of the visual system discovered by Hubel and Wiesel were present in the awake animal, but more importantly, that attention and motor events interacted with the pure visual processing in critical ways.

"These advances have inspired hundreds of scientists to study the physiology of cognition, and have provided key insights into normal processes like attention and corollary discharge which go awry in psychiatric diseases including schizophrenia and attention deficit disorder. It is important to emphasize that Dr. Wurtz's work has depended upon the sensitive, humane, and appropriate use of monkeys in neuroscientific research. No other technique could have enabled the discoveries which Dr. Wurtz has made about the physiological foundations of cognitive processes, and his work is applicable to humans as well as monkeys."


Contact: Alyson O'Mahoney
Robin Leedy & Associates, Inc.

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