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Sackler Prize awarded to pioneering neuroscientist

NEW YORK (April 11, 2011) -- Weill Cornell Medical College and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons have announced that The Mortimer D. Sackler, M.D. Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Developmental Psychobiology has been awarded to The Rockefeller University's Dr. Fernando Nottebohm for his seminal work in songbirds that has led to the discovery of neuronal replacement.

Dr. Nottebohm is currently the Dorothea L. Leonhardt Professor and head of the Laboratory of Animal Behavior at The Rockefeller University, where his work has offered some of the first irrefutable evidence that new nerve cells are constantly born in an adult vertebrate brain. His work with songbirds was also the first to establish an animal model for studying the neurobiology of vocal learning and its relation to the culling and recruiting of brain cells. He showed that brain pathways for vocalization emerge late in development, when many new cells are added as birds learn their song; this process is highly sensitive to hormones and social experience and continues into adulthood. Dr. Nottebohm conducts his studies of canaries, zebra finches and wild songbirds at the Center for Field Research in Ethology and Ecology in Millbrook, N.Y.

"By identifying the birth, migration and differentiation of new brain cells and showing that they are incorporated into the existing circuits of juvenile and adult songbirds and how this relates to ongoing behavior, Dr. Nottebohm has raised new possibilities in how we think about the brain, its development, repair and regeneration," says Dr. B.J. Casey, director of the Sackler Institute and the Sackler Professor of Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Cornell Medical College. "Throughout his productive career, Dr. Nottebohm's creative and collaborative research has been an exemplar of the interdisciplinary approach shared across the Sackler Institutes, helping to build the field of developmental psychobiology, from the study of genes and stem cells to the ecology, sociobiology, development and evolution of learning."

"Dr. Nottebohm was selected from a field of 19 stellar nominees. His innovative research sets a very high bar for future awardees, establishing this prize as one of the most prestigious of its kind," says Dr. Myron Hofer, director of the Columbia Sackler Institute and the Sackler Institute Professor of Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University Medical Center and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

The Sackler Prize is selected by a committee of 15, including faculty from each of the five Sackler Institutes, programs and centers: Weill Cornell Medical College; Columbia University Medical Center; Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow; University of Sussex; and McGill University. Dr. Nottebohm will hold grand rounds at Columbia and Weill Cornell in April of 2011.

"I am humbled to have been chosen for this prestigious honor," says Dr. Nottebohm. "This prize is crucially important for raising the awareness of and support for research in developmental psychobiology. I am pleased too that it recognizes how the study of song learning in birds has contributed to this still young and exciting field," says Dr. Nottebohm, noting that many are surprised, still, by the parallels between vocal learning in birds and human infants.

Asked about the most unexpected insight from his own work, he says that it was "the realization that there are brain cells born in adulthood that live only for a period of weeks or months and then, just as they came, are gone. This sloughing off of cells is not surprising when it occurs in our skin, or liver, or the lining of the gut, but we were not prepared to encounter it in the brain. This was new, and it was new, too, that even as some of cells were culled, others were added. The very thought that some circuits might be able to rejuvenate themselves in this manner was preposterous. Yet in the songbirds it happens all the time.

"It is hard to imagine," Dr. Nottebohm adds, "that our awareness of neuronal stem cells and spontaneous neuronal replacement in the adult healthy brain will not influence research aimed at correcting the ravages brought about by stroke and neurodegenerative disorders."


Contact: Andrew Klein
New York- Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center/Weill Cornell Medical College

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