Robert H. Wurtz

2010 Neuroscience Prize

Laureate Profile

Visual cognition was only a nascent field of neuroscience in 1969, the year that Robert H. Wurtz, PhD, then a physiologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, published a landmark paper in which he demonstrated for the first time how neurons involved in the visual processing of an awake monkey could be observed and recorded. Before then, animals had to be anesthetized to record their neuronal activity—a process that limited what could be studied. Wurtz’s technique (which involved training the monkeys to hold their eyes still for a few seconds while he recorded their neurons as they reacted to moving objects and other visual stimuli) is now used by cognitive neuroscientists around the world and has paved the way for subsequent research on visual cognition, including investigations into such phenomena as attention, motion perception, and motivation.

Wurtz went on to make other groundbreaking discoveries. For example, he mapped the fields of individual neurons in the awake brain that receive visual information. He elucidated how different forebrain structures, such as the primary visual cortex, contribute to visual processing and how subcortical brains structures, such as the superior colliculus and the basal ganglia, initiate eye movements. He also discovered and described some of the complex pathways by which these various structures interact with each other.

Wurtz, who helped found and then headed the National Eye Institute’s Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research for 24 years (1978–2002), has inspired many others in the broad field of cognitive neuroscience. The result: Scientists now have a deeper understanding of how the brain processes the sensory signals that underlie perception and the control of movement. This knowledge has helped to unlock some of the neurophysiological mysteries of various brain conditions and diseases, including stroke, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.