PASADENA, Calif.-Masakazu "Mark" Konishi, a California Institute of Technology neuroscientist renowned for his work on the neural wiring that allows owls to swoop in on their prey in darkness and songbirds to sing, and his former postdoctoral researcher Eric Knudsen, who is now chair of the neurobiology department at Stanford University, have been awarded this year's Peter Gruber Foundation Neuroscience Prize.
Konishi, who is the Bing Professor of Behavioral Biology at Caltech, and Knudsen received the prize for their work on the brain mechanisms of sound localization in barn owls, which Konishi has worked on since the mid-1970s. The two will receive an unrestricted cash prize of $200,000, a gold medal, and a citation for their contributions to neuroscience. The award was established in 2004 and is given each year to "to honor the most distinguished work in the field of the brain, nervous system and the spinal cord."
Konishi has worked extensively for two decades on the auditory systems of barn owls, which can use their acute hearing to home in on mice on the ground, even in total darkness. The research has led to a good understanding of how the owl's brain manages to "compute" precise locations in two dimensions, and how the neural pathways and circuits are involved.
One of their noteworthy collaborative accomplishments was their work on the auditory physiology of owls in which they used "free-field" speakers that could be moved around the owls' heads. This method allowed them to find the "space-specific" neurons that respond to sounds coming from particular directions. As they plotted the directions and the brain-recording sites, it became clear to them that the neurons involved formed a map of auditory space.
The neurobiology of birdsongs is also of interest to Konishi because several areas of the bird's brain are involved, and because the interaction between the neural wiring and the birds' behavior is of interest to those who strive to better understand the vertebrate brain. Young birds select the song of their own species out of many alien songs in their environment, and they do so because of the way they memorize a "tutor song" at an early stage of development and then produce a copy of it at maturity.
Konishi's work has implications for better understanding the human brain and perhaps even for future interventions in certain neurological disorders.
For example, his group in the past has focused on the death of a special group of nerve cells during a particular developmental period in songbirds, and on the hormonal means of preventing cell death. The problem of the biologically programmed death of nerve cells may have long-term implications for understanding human disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
The Peter Gruber Foundation was founded in 1993 and established a record of charitable giving principally in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where it is located. In recent years the foundation has expanded its focus to a series of international awards recognizing discoveries and achievements that produce fundamental shifts in human knowledge and culture. In addition to the Neuroscience Prize, the foundation presents awards in the fields of cosmology, genetics, justice, and women's rights. Further information about the Peter Gruber Foundation and its awards is available from www.petergruberfoundation.org.
Last year, Seymour Benzer, who is Caltech's Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Emeritus, became the first recipient of the Neuroscience Prize.