NEI Neuroscientist Robert H. Wurtz, Ph.D., Awarded Gruber Neuroscience Prize

News Brief

The National Eye Institute’s Robert H. Wurtz, Ph.D., has been awarded the 2010 Neuroscience Prize from The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation for his pioneering work in establishing and advancing the field of cognitive neuroscience. He is being honored for his initial studies on brain structures that contribute to visual processing and initiate eye movements. This basic research knowledge has laid a foundation for scientists to better understand how brain organization contributes to physical behaviors, and has made possible all current visual cognition studies, on topics including attention, motion perception and motivation.

This prestigious $500,000 award is also given to honor Wurtz’s role as a mentor and an inspiration for countless neuroscientists. Wurtz will accept the award on Nov. 14, 2010 at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, where he will give a lecture titled “Brain Circuits for Active Vision.”

Wurtz is a National Institutes of Health Distinguished Investigator in the NEI Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research. Wurtz helped established the laboratory in 1973 and served as its chief until 1997.

Since 1969, Wurtz has been publishing studies on the physiology of the visual system in awake primates, through which he showed that single neurons in the brain could process visual information. With the technique he developed, scientists around the world could study the brain activity that contributed to behaviors.

“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,” said Sten Grillner, chair of the Selection Advisory Board.

Wurtz then went even deeper, mapping individual nerve cells that receive visual information in the awake brain. He showed how different areas of the outer brain-the cortex-contributed to visual processing, and how inner brain structures-subcortical areas-initiated eye movement. He also discovered and described the complex pathways that allow these brain structures to communicate.

“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.

Through Wurtz’s advances in cognitive neuroscience, other researchers have moved beyond the eye to develop a deeper understanding of brain diseases and conditions, including stroke, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.