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Marlene R. Cohen wins Eppendorf/Science Prize for Research into the Wandering Mind

Marlene Cohen has been named the 2012 Grand Prize winner in the international competition for The Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology. She is being recognized for her outstanding research contributions into the neural basis of internal mental states.

“We‘ve known for a long time that our internal state, what’s going on inside our heads, affects everything about what we perceive and how we interact with the world,” said Cohen, an assistant professor in the

Marlene Cohen

Department of Neuroscience and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at the University of Pittsburgh. “These methods are exciting to me because they allow us to measure the effect of internal states, not only on average over a long period of time, but on the moment-to-moment timescale that they actually affect behavior.”

“Years of work in psychology and neuroscience have shown that paying attention to a location improves our ability to see things at that location,” explained Cohen, “Attention affects the brain as well: On average, paying attention to a location also increases the responses of neurons that encode that part of space.”

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, and the winner’s essay is published in the journal Science.

The winner and the finalists will be recognized at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on Sunday, 14 October 2012, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

In her award-winning essay, “When Attention Wanders,” published in the 5 October issue of Science, Cohen explains that when our minds wander, so too do our perceptual abilities. “As everyone who has ever sat through a long, boring lecture knows, it is impossible to pay attention to one thing for a long time,” explained Cohen. One of the goals of her post-doctoral research with John Maunsell at Harvard Medical School was to figure out how these fluctuations in attention affect our ability to notice subtle changes in a visual scene.

“In order to measure what happens when a subject’s mind wanders, we had to record many neurons at once,” said Cohen. Using new technology to record simultaneously from about 80 neurons all the difference, she added. “Those 80 neurons provided a snapshot of the information available to an animal in a given moment, and allowed us to track the focus of attention over time.”

Cohen and colleagues trained animals to perform a task that measured their ability to detect subtle changes in a visual stimulus. Surprisingly, they found that when the neurons indicated that their attention had wandered from the correct location, their performance was impaired and the effect was huge. “When the animals paid attention to the correct location, they could detect a change about 75% of the time,” said Cohen. “When their attention wandered, they detected the change less than 10% of the time.” The research suggests that strongly focusing on one feature of a scene makes it more difficult to see a very different feature.

“These results are exciting because they give us the ability to use neural recordings to essentially figure out what an animal is thinking at any moment,” concluded Cohen. “John Maunsell and I used this ability to learn some things about attention, including how it is allocated across space and how it affects easy and difficult tasks differently. In my new lab at the University of Pittsburgh, we are starting to use these methods to detect fluctuations in cognitive factors other than attention, to learn how these cognitive states are encoded in different brain areas and communicated across areas, and how changes in those states affect perception.”

“I loved research in general, and I loved learning how the activity of neurons is associated with behavior,” explained Cohen about her first experience with neuroscience as a research assistant in a lab that studies spatial navigation. “As primates, vision is the main way that we find out about the world. Everything we know about the world is encoded in our brains, and it’s a thrill every time I walk in the lab and hear those neurons firing, and know that we’re starting to understand a bit about that neural code.”

Cohen received her Ph.D. from Stanford University studying how interactions between neurons depend on how animals plan to use the sensory information they encode. Her postdoctoral research at Harvard Medical School used visual attention as a tool to understand which aspects of a cortical population code are most important. Her group at the University of Pittsburgh uses physiological, behavioral, and computational methods to study what information groups of neurons in visual cortex transmit to downstream areas and how variability in sensory neurons affects perception.


Aryn Gittis

Aryn Gittis, for her essay “Striatal Interneurons: Causes or Cures for Movement Disorders?” Gittis is an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at Carnegie Mellon University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego, where she studied intrinsic firing mechanisms of vestibular nucleus neurons. In 2008, she became a postdoctoral fellow at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease, where she studied inhibitory circuits involved in movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and dystonia. Her laboratory uses electrophysiology, optogenetics, and anatomy to study how neural circuits in the basal ganglia control movement in health and disease.

Bertrand Coste

Bertrand Coste, for his essay, “The Cellular Feeling of Pressure.” Coste is a CNRS Research Scientist at the Research Center of Neurobiology-Neurophysiology of Marseilles, France. He received his Ph.D. in Neurosciences from the University of the Mediterranean Aix-Marseille II. In his doctoral work, he worked on pain sensitivity and investigated the modulation of nociceptive neuron excitability during inflammation. After receiving his Ph.D., he moved to The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, where he was a postdoctoral fellow from 2007 to 2012. His work focused on the identification of molecular components involved in the transduction of mechanical forces into biological signals and led to the identification of a new family of ion channels.

About Eppendorf

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, microtiter 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 2600 employees worldwide. The company has subsidiaries in 23 countries and is represented in all other markets by distributors.

Read the full text of finalist essays and learn how to apply for next year’s Eppendorf and Science Prize for Neurobiology.