Eiman Azim is the 2014 grand prize winner in the annual international competition for The Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology. Azim is being recognized for his exceptional research contributions into the neural circuits that control skilled movement.
"When we catch a ball or throw a dart, we usually don't give a second thought to the intricate neural circuits that orchestrate such dexterous behaviors," said Azim, a postdoctoral research fellow with Tom Jessell at Columbia University. "Somehow, we are able to coordinate the activity of dozens of muscles to propel our hand to a very specific point in space."
Listen to a AAAS podcast interview with Eiman Azim
To understand how the nervous system enables our arms to reach out and grab an object with speed and precision, Azim and his colleagues conducted studies in mice to disentangle neural pathways and pinpoint individual spinal circuits that are involved in skilled motor control.
Azim's research "gives us specific details into long-standing theories about fine movement coordination in the brain," said Melissa McCartney, Science associate editor and member of the Prize jury committee.
"Eiman Azim's work gives fundamental new insights into the motor control mechanism," added Peter Stern, Science's senior editor, who chaired the prize jury. "He established that propriospinal neuron internal feedback and motor copy circuits help to calibrate movement, and he identified presynaptic inhibition as a crucial gain control mechanism for smooth limb movement."
The Eppendorf and 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.
In his award-winning essay "Shortcuts and Checkpoints on the Road to Skilled Movement," which was published in the 31 October issue of Science, Azim highlights work that helped identify and characterize two separate, genetically defined neural circuits in the spinal cord: a feedback pathway that can rapidly update movements to bring the arm to the desired target, and an inhibitory circuit that helps regulate signals from the muscles and maintain the stability of the limb.
"By applying mouse molecular tools to the investigation of skilled forelimb behavior, traditionally the domain of primate research, my colleagues and I provide direct experimental support for long-standing theories about how internal feedback pathways within the central nervous system and external feedback from the muscles each contribute to fine movement," he wrote.
While conducting his postdoctoral research work, Azim was inspired to find a direct link between neural circuits and the specific behaviors they control, and he chose the motor system to try to make progress in addressing these questions. He notes that while his work focuses on the basic science of movement, there is a lot of potential for this kind of research to contribute to human health.
"There's some recent evidence that after a spinal cord injury, propriospinal neurons like the ones we investigated can rewire and provide a bridge around the injury site, contributing to motor recovery," Azim explained in a podcast interview. "Essential to our understanding of the therapeutic relevance of these kinds of spinal circuits is a clearer understanding of their basic organization and how they function during movement."
"In the future, I plan to build on the approaches we developed to investigate how the cerebellum uses feedback information to refine movement," said Azim, the 13th winner of the prize. "More generally, I hope to explore how changes in the complexity of motor circuits across developmental and evolutionary time direct diverse types of skilled motor behavior, with an eye toward a better understanding of human motor function and dysfunction."
Azim and the following finalists will be recognized at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on Sunday, 16 November 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Allyson Friedman | Hoebermann Studio Inc.
Allyson Friedman, for her essay "Jump-starting natural resilience reverses stress susceptibility." Friedman received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College at Columbia University and her Ph.D. from Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Friedman is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Mount Sinai where she is conducting research on the ionic and neural circuit mechanisms of susceptibility and resilience to major depressive disorder to identify novel targets for treatment.
Ho Ko | William Ward, W12 Production
Ho Ko, for his essay "Functional organization of synaptic connections in the neocortex." Ko received his undergraduate degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a Ph.D. from University College London. He is currently pursuing clinical training while conducting research studying the neural basis of motor control and visual information processing, as well as planning collaborative work with engineers to develop novel biomedical engineering technology.
About Eppendorf AG
Eppendorf is a leading life science company that develops and sells instruments, consumables, and services for liquid handling, sample handling, 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. Consumables such as pipette tips, test tubes, microliter plates, and disposable bioreactors complement the range of highest-quality premium products. 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 2,850 employees worldwide. The company has subsidiaries in 25 countries and is represented in all other markets by distributors.