Michael Yartsev is the 2013 grand prize winner in the annual international competition for The Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology. Yartsev is being recognized for his outstanding research contributions into the neural coding mechanisms underlying three-dimensional spatial memory and navigation in the mammalian brain.
"All animals on our planet, either on the ground, the ocean depths, or in the sky, must have knowledge of their whereabouts to survive," said Yartsev, a research associate and C.V. Starr Fellow at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University. "How the brain solves the problem of knowing where we are in space is a central question in neuroscience."
Yartsev was able to answer a long-standing question about the mechanisms the brain uses to navigate "from a different angle by studying an unusual and novel animal model — the bat," said Melissa McCartney, Science associate editor and member of the prize jury committee.
For many years, studies designed to test spatial memory in mammals have been done in rodents. "He [Yartsev] was able to further our understanding of how spatial memory is represented in the mammalian brain," said Science Senior Editor Peter Stern, who chaired the prize jury.
The Eppendorf & Science Prize in Neurobiology recognizes outstanding international neurobiological research based on current methods and advances in the field of molecular and cell biology by a young early-career scientist, as described in a 1,000-word essay based on research performed within the last three years. The grand prize winner receives $25,000 from Eppendorf.
Mammalian navigation has been linked to a part of the brain called the hippocampus, and in particular to hippocampal neurons called "place cells," which fire when an animal is in a specific location to help that animal orient. Until now, however, it has been unclear whether navigation processes identified in ground dwellers, which typically navigate along 2D environments, are the same in creatures that fly and navigate in 3D environments.
In his award-winning essay, published in the 1 November issue of Science, Yartsev highlights his discovery that place cells do indeed help bats navigate 3D space. Notably, the neural processes he and colleagues found bats using to navigate 3D space were different from those previously identified in rats.
"Our study in bats allowed for causal examination of a major class of models that were based solely on data from rats," he wrote, adding that "the use of novel animal models in neuroscience can complement existing knowledge and provide insights into the inner workings of the brain."
While conducting his doctoral research at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, Yartsev worked in the laboratory of Nachum Ulanovsky and recorded the activity of single neurons in the hippocampus of freely behaving and flying bats. "The use of a novel animal model, along with the technological development to monitor the activity of single neurons during flight, allowed us to conduct both causal examinations of leading hypotheses in the field as well as to provide novel insights into the neural codes underlying the representation of three-dimensional space in the brain." Yartsev explained.
Since 2012, Yartsev has been conducting postdoctoral work in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute laboratory of Carlos Brody, studying the neural basis of decision-making.
"In the future, I plan to use bats' unique behavioral repertoire and sensory system along with the technology to monitor the activity of single neurons during flight to also study the computations taking place in the brain during decision-making processes," he said.
"I am truly blown away," expressed Yartsev, the 12th winner of the prize, about his work's recognition. "Given the caliber of past winners and runners-up, I feel extremely honored and grateful for being chosen to receive this prize."
Yartsev and the following finalists will be recognized at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on 10 November in San Diego, California.
Sophie J.C. Caron, for her essay "Brains don't play dice — or do they?" Caron is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the department of neuroscience at Columbia University. Sophie grew up in St-Blaise-sur-Richelieu in Canada and earned a B.Sc. in Biochemistry at the Université de Montréal. She moved to New York City to study the developmental mechanisms behind the diversification of sensory neurons in the laboratory of Alexander Schier at New York University and, later, Harvard University. After completing her Ph.D., Caron joined the laboratory of Richard Axel at Columbia University, where she studies how the information gathered through the senses is represented in higher brain centers, in particular those involved in memory.
Daniel Bendor, for his essay "Play it again brain." Bendor is a lecturer in the department of cognitive, perceptual, and brain sciences and the Institute of Behavioral Neuroscience at University College London. Bendor received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University under the mentorship of Xiaoqin Wang, studying temporal processing in the auditory cortex and the neural correlate of pitch and flutter perception. For his postdoctoral research, he investigated the role of the hippocampus in memory encoding and consolidation, while working with Matthew Wilson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He recently started his own lab at University College London, where his research focuses on how neural ensembles encode perceptual and memory-related information.
About Eppendorf AG
Eppendorf is a leading life science company that develops and sells instruments, consumables and services for liquid, sample and cell handling in laboratories worldwide. Its product range includes pipettes and automated pipetting systems, dispensers, centrifuges, mixers, spectrometers and DNA amplification equipment as well as ultra-low temperature freezers, fermentors, bioreactors, CO2 incubators, shakers and cell manipulation systems. Associated consumables like pipette tips, test tubes, microliter plates and disposable bioreactors complement the instruments for highest quality workflow solutions. Eppendorf products are most broadly used in academic and commercial research laboratories, e.g., in companies from the pharmaceutical and biotechnological as well as the chemical and food industries. They are also aimed at clinical and environmental analysis laboratories, forensics and at industrial laboratories performing process analysis, production and quality assurance. Eppendorf was founded in Hamburg, Germany in 1945 and has about 2,700 employees worldwide. The company has subsidiaries in 25 countries and is represented in all other markets by distributors.