Tiago Branco is the 2011 grand prize winner in the annual international competition for The Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology. He is being recognized for his outstanding contributions to research into how single neurons in the brain can compute and convert information into behavior.
“My aim is to investigate how the brain processes information from the outside world to generate behaviors,” said Branco, a postdoctoral fellow at the University College London Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research. “Using a laser to stimulate inputs with high precision, I showed that one neuron can discriminate different temporal sequences, which is a fundamental computation in everyday life.”
Branco’s research reveals that dendrites, the “arms” that project from the cell body of a neuron, are not just rote transmitters of electrical impulses, but that they actively filter and transform this information on its way into the cell body. “My recent results provide insight into this, and suggest that even single neurons can solve complex computational tasks.”
In his award-winning essay, “The Language of Dendrites,” Branco explains how he first became interested in dendrites during his Ph.D. work, when he found that they can regulate the amount of input the neuron receives. In his subsequent research, Branco investigated how dendrites can discriminate between input signals depending on when and where the signals arrive. This complex computational task likely helps neurons fire their own signals at the appropriate time. “As we begin to understand the language of dendrites, we can start eavesdropping on their conversations and learn more about how the brain accomplishes its tasks,” Branco wrote.
“It was a really interesting exercise having to put my findings in a general context, in a format different from a standard scientific paper,” Branco said.
Branco received his M.D. from Lisbon University in 2002. He then joined the Wellcome Trust Four Year Ph.D. Program in Neuroscience at University College London, where, in Yukiko Goda’s group, he focused on neurotransmitter release properties of individual synapses. After receiving his Ph.D., he moved to Michael Hausser’s laboratory, where he has been a postdoctoral research fellow since 2007. Branco has applied electrophysiological, optical, and modeling techniques to investigate how dendritic integration contributes to single-neuron computations. He plans to combine this approach with molecular methods to investigate the role of dendrites in controlling animal behavior. 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 an early-career scientist, as described in a 1000-word essay based on research performed within the last three years. The grand prize winner receives $25,000 from Eppendorf, and the winner’s essay will be published in the 4 November 2011 issue of the journal Science.
The winner and the finalists will be recognized at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on 12 November in Washington, D.C.
Aaron Gitler: “A Simple Yeast Model Provides New Insight into a Complicated Human Neurodegenerative Disease.”
Gitler is an assistant professor in the department of cell and developmental biology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, working with Jonathan Epstein on signaling pathways in cardiovascular development. In postdoctoral research with Susan Lindquist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, he performed yeast genetic screens for modifiers of toxicity associated with the Parkinson’s disease protein alpha-synuclein. Gitler’s group at the University of Pennsylvania combines yeast and human genetics to elucidate novel pathways involved in neurodegenerative disease, focusing on the motor neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Roger Clem: “An Uninstall Function for Fear Memory.”
Clem received his Ph.D. under the mentorship of Alison Barth at Carnegie Mellon University, where he investigated sensory-driven synaptic plasticity in the neocortex. During a postdoctoral fellowship with Rick Huganir at The Johns Hopkins University, Clem examined the role of glutamate receptor trafficking in emotional memory. His work explains how fear memories can be permanently weakened through behavioral training in a process akin to software uninstall routines. Clem has accepted an appointment to assistant professor of neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where he will investigate synaptic mechanisms in memory formation and updating, as well as how those processes might be manipulated to treat psychiatric conditions.
Eppendorf is a life science company which develops, produces and distributes systems for use in research laboratories worldwide. Its product range includes pipettes, dispensers/repeaters and centrifuges as well as consumables such as micro test tubes and pipette tips. In addition, Eppendorf provides automated devices for liquid handling, a full range of equipment for DNA amplification, instruments, and systems for cell handling. Eppendorf was founded in Hamburg in 1945 and has more than 2,500 employees worldwide. The company has subsidiaries in 20 countries and is represented in all other markets by distributors. In fiscal 2010, the company’s sales revenues amounted to € 484 million with earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) of € 86 million.
Read the full text of the essays by the winner and the finalists.
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Listen to an interview with Tiago Branco, grand prize winner of the 2011 Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology.
Learn more about the Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology, including how to apply for 2012.