(SAN FRANCISCO, CA) The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters announced the award of the 2016 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience to Dr. Michael Merzenich for his work in discovering adult brain plasticity and applying its principles to improve the human condition. Dr. Merzenich shares the million-dollar prize with two other neuroplasticity research pioneers – Dr. Carla Shatz of Stanford University and Dr. Eve Marder of Brandeis University.
Dr. Merzenich is Professor Emeritus at the University of California San Francisco where he ran a government-funded research lab, and is also Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science Corporation, which develops and distributes brain-plasticity-based training programs and assessments..
Dr. Merzenich’s career arc has repeatedly exemplified the story of a revolutionary scientist. Again and again, he has made break-through discoveries that challenge scientific orthodoxy – resulting in skepticism and controversy, followed by rigorous and prolific scientific studies by Merzenich and others, that ultimately create a paradigm shift in the field.
As a result of his groundbreaking brain-mapping experiments thirty years ago, Dr. Merzenich overturned the conventional wisdom that plasticity ends in adolescence, and showed that the adult brain remains plastic (or malleable) at any age. Lifelong plasticity is now an accepted scientific fact, but it took more than a decade and hundreds of publications to convince the neuroscience community.
In recent years, Dr. Merzenich has been widely honored for his pioneering work in lifelong plasticity and his ongoing application of plasticity across a wide variety of conditions. He is among a small number of scientists elected by his peers to both the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, and is a recipient of many honors, including the Ipsen Prize, Zulch Prize, Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award, Purkinje Medal and Karl Spencer Lashley Award.
Dr. Merzenich first applied principles of plasticity to address a human disorder as a co-inventor of the cochlear implant – an invention that has restored hearing to more than 300,000 people with deafness. Making a cochlear replacement that was implantable was viewed as impossible because the natural cochlea uses over 3,000 connections to send information to the brain. Dr. Merzenich’s key insight was that an artificial cochlea could work with just 8 connection points, and that the brain’s plasticity would be able to fill in the missing information to restore hearing. In 2015, he was a co-recipient of the Russ Prize from the National Academy of Engineering, the highest honor in Bio-Engineering, for this invention.
In 1995, Dr. Merzenich took a sabbatical from UCSF to co-found Scientific Learning Corporation (NASDAQ: SCIL), a company that has helped millions of school children with language learning and reading, through computerized exercises based on principles of brain plasticity. This work challenged assumptions about how we learn to read, and showed that the root cause of most reading impairment is in how the brain process information, and is reversible through computerized training. Dr. Merzenich received the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions from the American Psychological Association for his work in childhood learning.
In 2003, Dr. Merzenich co-founded Posit Science Corporation to distribute brain training programs and assessments (shown effective in university-based laboratories around the world) to improve cognitive performance in adults. The conventional wisdom held that cognitive decline was an inevitable part of aging, and that other cognitive disorders were not reversible – just conditions to which people needed to adapt as best they could.
There are now more than 130 peer-reviewed articles on the results of using Posit Science exercises and assessments. Randomized controlled trials have shown a wide range of benefits, including gains in standard measures of cognitive performance (eg, speed of processing, attention, memory, executive function), in standard measures of quality of life (eg, health outcomes, health-related quality of life, mood, feelings of control) and in standard measures of real world performance (eg, functional independence, driving, balance, gait). These and many other results have led to a sea change in the way scientists view aging and cognitive disorders – with plasticity-based training offering a new way to improve cognitive function.
Posit Science exercises and assessments are available to consumers at BrainHQ.com.
Posit Science also maintains an active R&D program in addressing cognitive disorders and diseases – with more than 60 peer-reviewed articles showing results in populations grappling with neurodegenerative diseases, mental illnesses and brain injuries.
“Science is driven by the efforts of teams all over the world,” Dr. Merzenich told his colleagues when the prize was announced. “The key is to work with really talented people – so this honor really belongs to all of you and to everyone else from whom we’ve learned and with whom we’ve collaborated.”
His work at Posit Science currently has Dr. Merzenich collaborating with hundreds of university-based scientists around the globe, producing one or two peer-reviewed articles, on average, per month. One of those collaborators is psychiatrist Sophia Vinogradov at UCSF.
“Science is very siloed,” Dr. Vinogradov observed. “Part of Mike’s genius is that he reaches across silos to talk with experts outside his field about how plasticity may apply to their work. When we started talking about how plasticity might apply to schizophrenia, it opened my eyes to a completely different way of looking at the condition and how it might be treated. When we finally got to run some of the experiments Mike proposed 15 years ago, we learned it was not just a novel way of looking at things, it was a better way.”