Nobel Prizes in Neuroscience (Updated)

After O’Keefe and the Mosers winning the Nobel prize this year, I was wondering how many of the prizes have been for neuroscience research (directly). From the full list, these seem to be the winners:

  1. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2014
    John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser
    “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain”
  2. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2013
    James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof
    “for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells”
  3. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2004
    Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck
    “for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system”
  4. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2000
    Arvid Carlsson, Paul Greengard and Eric R. Kandel
    “for their discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system”
  5. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1991
    Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann
    “for their discoveries concerning the function of single ion channels in cells”
  6. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1981
    Roger W. Sperry
    “for his discoveries concerning the functional specialization of the cerebral hemispheres”
    David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel
    “for their discoveries concerning information processing in the visual system”
  7. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1977
    Roger Guillemin and Andrew V. Schally
    “for their discoveries concerning the peptide hormone production of the brain”
    Rosalyn Yalow
    “for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones”
  8. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1973
    Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen
    “for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns”
  9. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1971
    Earl W. Sutherland, Jr.
    “for his discoveries concerning the mechanisms of the action of hormones”
  10. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1970
    Sir Bernard Katz, Ulf von Euler and Julius Axelrod
    “for their discoveries concerning the humoral transmittors in the nerve terminals and the mechanism for their storage, release and inactivation”
  11. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1963
    Sir John Carew Eccles, Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and Andrew Fielding Huxley
    “for their discoveries concerning the ionic mechanisms involved in excitation and inhibition in the peripheral and central portions of the nerve cell membrane”
  12. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1961
    Georg von Békésy
    “for his discoveries of the physical mechanism of stimulation within the cochlea”
  13. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1950
    Edward Calvin Kendall, Tadeus Reichstein and Philip Showalter Hench
    “for their discoveries relating to the hormones of the adrenal cortex, their structure and biological effects”
  14. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1949
    Walter Rudolf Hess
    “for his discovery of the functional organization of the interbrain as a coordinator of the activities of the internal organs”
    Antonio Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz
    “for his discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses”
  15. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1947
    Carl Ferdinand Cori and Gerty Theresa Cori, née Radnitz
    “for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen”
    Bernardo Alberto Houssay
    “for his discovery of the part played by the hormone of the anterior pituitary lobe in the metabolism of sugar”
  16. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1944
    Joseph Erlanger and Herbert Spencer Gasser
    “for their discoveries relating to the highly differentiated functions of single nerve fibres”
  17. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1936
    Sir Henry Hallett Dale and Otto Loewi
    “for their discoveries relating to chemical transmission of nerve impulses”
  18. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1932
    Sir Charles Scott Sherrington and Edgar Douglas Adrian
    “for their discoveries regarding the functions of neurons”
  19. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1906
    Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramón y Cajal
    “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system”
  20. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1904
    Ivan Petrovich Pavlov
    “in recognition of his work on the physiology of digestion, through which knowledge on vital aspects of the subject has been transformed and enlarged”

16.2% 19% of the awards have gone to neuroscience!

One thing that struck me is how many names I don’t know, especially for people who, apparently, did really foundational work. I need to bone up on my history of neuroscience. Also, neuroscientists, don’t expect another award for ~7-8 years (*coughDeisserothBoydencough*).

*I’m including the 1973 prize as the (lone?! update: Pavlov!) psychology prize. Not sure whether to include the 1994 prize for GPCRs?

Updated: As commenter alf pointed out, I forgot Golgi and Ramon y Cajal! Which is depressing. And he’s right, last year’s work on vesicular transport could largely be seen as a neuroscientific prize.

Also Pavlov, because of the weird way the committee described his work.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology goes to the discoverers of grid and place cells

I was joking last night that when they announced the Nobel Prize, I wouldn’t have any clue who the winner was because I basically don’t know biology from before 10 years ago. Then I wake up and the winners are systems neuroscientists. That’ll teach me to joke! Obviously, I am ecstatic.

John O’Keefe, who discovered place cells, and May-Britt and Edvard Moser, who discovered grid cells, shared the prize.

Here is the announcement. Here is a fortuitously-timed profile on the Mosers (great, must read). Here is the New York Times (currently pretty sparse, but better than The Economist). Here is an adorable piglet running through the grass.

The two O’Keefe papers that you should know are: “The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat” and “Place units in the hippocampus of the freely moving rat.” Sadly, neither are Open Access.

The Moser paper is obviously their 2005 result “Microstructure of a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex“. This is one of those cases where the data is so beautiful you can’t believe it’s real (it is):

grid cellsNone of these papers are Open Access. Given that they won the Nobel Prize, they all should be. Surely the committee can afford that?


Nobel Prize in Economics: Fama, Hansen, and Shiller (link round-up)

The winners of this year’s pseudo-Nobel Prize in Economics are Fama, Hansen and Shiller. Marginal Revolution has a good series on what Fama did, what Hansen did, and what Shiller did. Hansen’s work is the hardest to understand in that it is basically stats. Here are more explanations.

Shiller of course had a lot of commentary on the recent bubble and crash which you should read.

I have nothing useful to add that is not in these links.

Nobel prize winners, who needs them?

Never let it be said that the shutdown isn’t affecting our ability to do science. I hear that researchers are  locked out of NIH but they’re not the only ones who have been shut down. Apparently 2012 Nobel Prize winner David Wineland has been found non-essential and furloughed:

Even if Stockholm’s prize committee found Wineland’s work groundbreaking, he was deemed expendable by the government last week.

“On the organization charts I’m just another worker, another non-essential,” said Wineland, sighing, during an interview from his home in Boulder…

“My experiments are completely stopped. It’s very challenging to stay ahead with competitive research when this happens; it just slows the research down,” said Wineland, a soft-spoken man with a white walrus mustache.

I think if my experiments were shut down like this I would just be pacing back and forth feeling nauseous. So many experiments rely on timing that months or years of planned experiments can go down the drain.

Not only is it interfering with the science itself, but the shutdown is beginning to interfere with conferences, too. Apparently satellite meetings of SFN are starting to be canceled.

Feel free to let us know what other affects the shutdown has been having on science.

Update: A good example from NPR

David Hubel, 1926 – 2013

Word comes that David Hubel passed away last night. A nobel laureate who studied the visual system, he was a legend in many ways.

First and foremost are his investigations into the basic representations of the world in the visual cortex. It was known prior to his (and, importantly, Torsten Wiesel) experiments that neurons in the retina respond to ON/OFF changes in light intensity at a specific part of the visual field – an area referred to as that neuron’s receptive field. In the illustration above, an ON-center cell responds best to a bright spot surrounded by a dark spot while an OFF-center cell responds best to the inverse light pattern. These cells are excellent at finding the edges of the visual world.

Hubel expected the visual cortex would contain neurons that responded in the same way. As happens so often in science, the visual cortex was uncooperative with his pet theory and did not respond to light and dark patches. Famously, it was only an accident that he discovered that visual cortical neurons respond to moving patches of light and dark! In particular, the cortical neurons will respond to precisely-oriented edges of light; a bar place in an identical location but rotated ninety degrees will elicit no response at all from the cell! Hubel and Wiesel found two distinct types of cells (although there is a contemporary debate as to whether these categories actually are distinct). They were classified into “simple” and “complex” cells. Whereas simple cells will only respond to a bar at a precise angle at a precise location, complex cells will respond to bars of a specific orientation located anywhere within the receptive field of the cell.

Hubel and Wiesel proposed a simple model of how these cells build up their behavior from the retinal cells that they (indirectly) receive input from. Simple cells gather input from a line of ON/OFF retinal cells while complex cells gather input from a collection of simple cells. Here is their original drawing:

On top you can see the proposed pooling of the ON/OFF receptive fields to form a line, and on bottom you can see the pooling of simple cells to enable an invariant response to lines regardless of location. Beautiful and simple! It is my understanding that much of this has been shown to be pretty much on the mark (though I have not paid attention to this subfield in years).

Hubel’s research extended so much further in its characterization of the visual system, but I’m not going to go into that. Rather, it is worth reading the speech he gave upon receiving his Nobel Prize. It is enjoyable and surprisingly gripping! As someone who knows the research inside and out, I still found a lot to learn from it. There are some great historical tidbits including this:

Many of the ideas about cortical function then in circulation seem in retro- spect almost outrageous. One has only to remember the talk of “suppressor strips”, reverberating circuits. or electrical field effects. This last notion was taken so seriously that no less a figure than our laureate-colleague Roger Sperry had had to put it to rest, in 1955, by dicing up the cortex with mica plates to insulate the subdivisions, and by skewering it with tantalum wire to short out the fields, neither of which procedures seriously impaired cortical function (7, 8). Nevertheless the idea of ephaptic interactions was slow to die out. There were even doubts as to the existence of topographic representation, which was viewed by some as a kind of artifact.

Hubel’s work was absolutely fundamental to our current understanding of cortical function. Something like 10% of all searches for ‘neuroscience’ on pubmed are related to vision, which is a shockingly high number for a field studying the whole nervous system. It goes without saying that Hubel’s work is the progenitor of much of this work and what enabled the visual system to be the model system of cortical function that it is today.

If you want to get the chills and see real science done, watch this movie of Hubel and Wiesel mapping out receptive fields.

RIP Huxley

I should have posted this earlier, but Nobel prize winner Andrew Huxley died on May 30, 2012.  Not only did Huxley (along with Alan Hodgkin) perform the original voltage clamp recordings on the squid giant axon neurons, but he also came up with a beautiful set of equations to describe the neural action potential.  These equations predicted the existence of sodium and potassium ion channels well before they were known to be the cause of neuronal spiking.  The Hodgkin-Huxley equations are the E=mc2 of neuroscience.

If you don’t know who Huxley is, read his obituary and maybe this article on the importance of the Hodgkin-Huxley work.  Then make sure to find out about the other two superheroes of neuroscience, Hubel and Wiesel.

And shame on the New York Times for not even mentioning Andrew Huxley’s death; it makes one a little sad to think that one of the greatest neuroscientists of all time, someone who practically created the modern field, would go unnoticed into death.