The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Biomedicine category goes, in this eighth edition, to Edward Boyden, Karl Deisseroth and Gero Miesenböck for the development of optogenetics, the use of genetically encoded light-activated proteins to modulate the activity of neurons, as a method to study brain function with unprecedented resolution.
Brain function relies on the interactions of specific groups of interconnected neurons, somewhat analogous to electric circuits. It has been long anticipated that understanding the function of brain circuits would require the development of a technology that would allow the selective control of individual neurons without affecting the activity of others. Optogenetics is this technology; it allows the activation and inactivation of neurons in living animals, and therefore can be used to make causal links between the function of specific neural circuits and distinct behaviors.
The award recognizes the contributions of three eminent scientists. Gero Miesenböck originally used a combination of three fruit-fly proteins to enable the excitation by light of vertebrate neurons. This system had practical limitations, but represents the conceptual breakthrough that launched the use of optogenetics for the interrogation of neural circuits. Edward Boyden and Karl Deisseroth pioneered the use of a different family of light-sensitive proteins, channelrhodopsins derived from algae, to manipulate the activity of neurons. This system, and its subsequent modifications, has revolutionized the study of brain function and is now used by neuroscientists around the world.