Professor Masao Ito from the Rikin Institute in Japan, and Professor Roger Nicoll from the University of California, San Francisco, have together provided the keys to our understanding of the molecular and cellular bases of learning and memory.
Professor Ito, special advisor to the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan, and Professor Nicoll, Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco, received their awards at the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience held this year in Atlanta, Georgia. Each received a gold medal and a $125,000 cash prize.
Ito and Nicoll have been shining light on the complex workings of the brain for the past four decades. Both men worked with, and have built on the achievements of, Nobel Laureate John Eccles.
They are the third recipients of the Neuroscience Prize of the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, which is awarded annually to honor the most distinguished work in the field of the brain, nervous system and the spinal cord.
What is memory? In one of many research contributions, Ito showed how motor learning (subconscious memory of procedures like driving) might function in the cerebellum. His team has identified over 30 molecules involved in these processes.
Nicoll has shown how episodic memory (such as memory of personal emotions and associations with a particular place) might be stored in the hippocampus.
These and many other discoveries have opened up new fields of study for neuroscience.
The work of Nicoll and Ito is teaching us how our brains work at a molecular level. Once we understand the chemistry of thought we may then be able to design better drugs to deal with Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases of the brain.