Much Deeper Insight
(March 13th, 2015) On Monday, the Danish Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation announced the winners of the 2015 Brain Prize. Congratulations to Winfried Denk, Arthur Konnerth, Karel Svoboda and David Tank.
Not quite noble enough for last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry (or Physics), which famously went to Stefan Hell, Eric Betzig and William Moerner for the development of superresolution microscopy, another revolutionary microscopy technique recently bagged a similarly lucrative prize, the Brain Prize. Worth €1 million – a few Euros more than the Nobel Prize – the award celebrates the development and skilful application of two-photon microscopy by Winfried Denk (Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, Munich), Arthur Konnerth (Technical University Munich), Karel Svoboda (Janelia Research Farm, USA) and David Tank (Princeton University).
Bestowed for the fifth time, the Brain Prize “recognises highly original and influential advances in any area of neuroscience”, be it basic, translational or clinical research. The only requirement: the prize-worthy research must have been performed in Europe or in close collaboration with European scientists.
As a little side note, the prize is awarded by the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation, a charitable, non-profit organisation founded by the Lundbeck Foundation. For everyone unfamiliar with the name Lundbeck, here’s a little history. In the beginning of the 20th century, Hans Lundbeck opened a trading company in Denmark, selling, amongst others, machinery, biscuits and renting out vacuum cleaners. Later, they added the production and packaging of pharmaceuticals to their portfolio and became one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies worldwide, specialising in drugs for the treatment of brain diseases including depression, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s. Grete Lundbeck, Hans Lundbeck’s widow, established the Lundbeck Foundation in 1954.
Back to the year 2015 and the newly-crowned Brain Prize winners. Explaining their decision, Povl Krogsgaard-Larsen, Chair of the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation, said in a press release: “Thanks to these four scientists we’re now able to study the normal brain's development and attempt to understand what goes wrong when we're affected by destructive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. More than that, we are able to visualise how adaptive behavioural changes affect the nerve cells of living animals.”
So, what is this two-photon microscopy? It’s a refined version of conventional fluorescence microscopy, in which short wavelength, high energy UV light is used to excite fluorophores. This technique works fine unless you want to see detailed images deep inside thick tissues. The high energy UV light also quickly exhausts the fluorophores. Similarly to the superresolution STED technique, invented by Hell, two-photon microscopy uses two laser pulses. In contrast to STED, in which the second laser eliminates all light coming from areas outside the focus spot, two-photon microscopy sends two exciting beams of low energy infrared light. Two separate photons, hitting the fluorophore one after another, elicit fluorescence and your fluorescent-labelled molecule of interest miraculously appears in front of your eyes. This gentle imaging method allows for a much deeper peek inside thick tissues and even an entire live brain.
Winfried Denk, the driving force behind two-photon microscopy, continues to develop new and better optical methods for biomedical research. Arthur Konnerth uses the technique to, amongst others, image calcium signals in dendritic spines of cortical neurons in vivo. Karel Svoboda measures neuronal activity to understand how “active touch and object location judgment are coded in the somatosensory system” and David Tank is interested in persistent neural activity and its role during short-term memory.