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Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology goes to Karl Deisseroth

by Linda Wang
July 15, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 29

Karl Deisseroth, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, is the winner of the 2018 Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology.

Photo of Karl Deisseroth.
Credit: Stanford University
Karl Deisseroth

“It’s a tremendous honor, and I feel very fortunate to have worked with so many talented students and postdocs over the years who worked with me on this project,” says Deisseroth, who is the youngest person to win this prize.

Deisseroth pioneered the field of optogenetics, which has enabled scientists to use light to manipulate the activity of nerve cells in the brains of lab animals and understand how that stimulation affects the animals’ behavior. Applications of this research include better understanding of brain disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.

“Nobody could have predicted 14 years ago that putting some algae genes into neurons would give us insights into psychiatry, for example,” Deisseroth says. “There are optogenetics-guided clinical trials now where people are using insights from optogenetics to guide other kinds of interventions for diseases like drug addiction.”

“It’s really been amazing to see not only experiments that I hoped would be possible but also many things I never would have imagined,” he says. “It’s a testament to basic science.”

He envisions the future of this field to have even broader applications. “As people get insights into how neural circuitry actually works causally, that will make all kinds of clinical interventions, whether they’re pharmacological or brain stimulation or even behavioral, more precise and powerful.”

His colleagues say he is deserving of this honor. “In addition to driving extraordinary, generously shared science and technology, Karl has been an outstanding mentor,” says Viviana Gradinaru, professor of neuroscience and biological engineering at California Institute of Technology, who was a postdoc in Deisseroth’s group.

The Kyoto Prize is awarded by Japan’s Inamori Foundation in the categories of advanced technology, basic sciences, and arts and philosophy. The prizes, which include a gift of 100 million yen (approximately $898,000), will be awarded at a ceremony in Kyoto, Japan, on Nov. 10.


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