Brain power

A new award in neuroscience.

Pasko Rakic is the first winner of a new neuroscience prize. View full image

Pasko Rakic was asleep when his phone rang at 6 a.m. on May 28. "I was still in bed, and I was thinking somebody wants to sell me something," he recalls. But the voice on the other end informed Rakic, chair of the neurobiology department at the medical school, that he had won the first Kavli Prize for Neuroscience, one of a new set of million-dollar scientific awards.

This year’s prizes are the first in what will be a set of biennial honors going to leading researchers in neuroscience, nanoscience, and astrophysics. The prizes are sponsored jointly by the Kavli Foundation, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. Rakic shares this year’s neuroscience award with two other scientists: Thomas Jessell of Columbia University and Sten Grillner of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.

Rakic has devoted his career to studying the development of the cerebral cortex, the wrinkled top layer of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions such as language. He has made a number of fundamental discoveries, including how new neurons migrate to their final positions in the cortex. The brain cells that make up the cortex are actually born deeper in the brain; Rakic showed that the neurons are guided to their locations by a temporary scaffolding of living cells and that newer neurons travel beyond older ones before coming to rest. His work has helped explain how the cortex develops its hallmark layers.

Despite his record of significant findings, Rakic knows that plenty of questions remain to be answered. "The human brain is the most complex structure in the universe," he says. "I recognize that it will not be finished with me. The next generation will be even more positioned to understand where we come from and where we are going."  

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