In May, Pasko Rakic, M.D., Ph.D., the Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Neurobiology and professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, was named one of the inaugural recipients of the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience for his key role in changing our understanding of the cerebral cortex, the seat of human cognitive function.
The $1 million Kavli Prizes, which will be presented biannually for achievements in neuroscience, nanoscience and astrophysics, are a partnership of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Oxnard, Calif.-based Kavli Foundation, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.
Rakic, a neurosurgeon-turned neuroscientist, was honored along with Sten Grillner, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, and Thomas M. Jessell, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Columbia University for “discoveries on the developmental and functional properties of neuronal circuits.”
“Together Rakic, Jessell and Grillner have managed to decipher the mechanisms that govern the formation and functioning of the complex networks of the neural system to a level of understanding never previously achieved,” said Jon Storm-Mathisen, professor of anatomy at the University of Oslo and chair of the Kavli Neuroscience Prize Committee. “The insight spans from the level of signaling molecules to cell and network wiring and action, to behavior. The new knowledge carries promise for future treatments of brain disorders by repairing damaged circuits.”
For the past three decades, Rakic has carried out pioneering studies of how neurons in the developing cerebral cortex are generated and how they assemble themselves into the highly ordered, distinctively layered and densely interconnected circuits that direct higher order sensory and motor functions.
“Pasko Rakic has contributed much to our understanding of brain function, defining the mechanisms by which cortical neurons move to the proper location within the cerebral cortex,” says Dean Robert Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine. “He is an outstanding scientist who has not only made significant contributions himself, but has developed an exceptional department of neurobiology here at Yale.”
Early in his career, Rakic discovered that previously enigmatic support cells known as radial glia serve as guides for the migration of cortical neurons in the developing brain, and he showed how this process is critical for the organization of the multilayered structure of the cerebral cortex.
His “radial unit hypothesis” set the stage for our current view of the steps involved in the evolution of ever more complex and sophisticated brains among the vertebrates. Rakic’s four-dimensional model of developmental events over time, from the initial divisions of neuronal stem cells through their migration and stratified settlement in cortical columns, is reproduced in virtually every basic neuroscience textbook.
Rakic also introduced the influential idea that different regions of the cerebral cortex acquire many of their specialized anatomical and functional properties through genetic programs intrinsic to the cortex itself.
The Kavli Prize is named for, and funded by, Fred Kavli, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who was inspired to seek a career in science and engineering while marveling at the northern lights in the skies above the tiny Norwegian village where he grew up. He later moved to the U.S., where he founded the Kavlico Corporation, which became one of the world’s largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautic, automotive and industrial application.
In addition to funding the new prizes, Kavli has established 15 research institutes devoted to neuroscience, nanoscience and astrophysics at leading academic institutions around the world. Since 2005, Rakic has been director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale.
At a ceremony in New York announcing the prizes, Kavli said, “The Kavli Prizes were created to recognize achievements in three exceptionally exciting fields which we believe promise remarkable future discoveries and benefits for humanity in the 21st century and beyond.”