IARS Emeritus Trustee Dr. Emery N. Brown Awarded Share of 2022 Gruber Neuroscience Prize

IARS Emeritus Trustee Emery N. Brown, MD, PhD, Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Health Sciences & Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was awarded a share of the 2022 Gruber Neuroscience Prize on May 17 for his trailblazing contributions to the fields of computational and theoretical neuroscience by the Gruber Foundation. This prestigious award, which honors scientists for major discoveries that advance the understanding of the nervous system, was given to Dr. Brown and three other renowned scientists, including neurophysicists Laurence Abbott of Columbia University, Terrence Sejnowski of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and Haim Sompolinsky of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Their collective work in these important fields is vital to unraveling the mysteries behind the complex neural networks in the brain. The Gruber Foundation will present this prize, which includes a total award of $500,000, at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on November 13 in San Diego, CA.

Joshua Sanes, PhD, a member of the selection advisory board for the prize and Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Paul J. Finnegan Family Director, Center for Brain Science at Harvard University and Co-Director, Harvard Brain Science Initiative acknowledged the ground these four awardees have traversed in the field of neuroscience and the nature of the brain and mind. “These four remarkable scientists have applied their expertise in mathematical and statistical analysis, physics, and machine learning to create theories, mathematical models, and tools that have greatly advanced how we study and understand the brain,” he said. “Their insights and research have not only transformed how experimental neuroscientists do their research, but also are leading to promising new ways of providing clinical care.”

An investigator in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Institute for Medical Engineering & Science at MIT and Warren M. Zapol Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Brown expressed his appreciation for the recognition, “It is a pleasant surprise and tremendous honor to be named a co-recipient of the 2022 Gruber Prize in Neuroscience. I am especially honored to share this award with three luminaries in computational and theoretical neuroscience.”

Dr. Brown has led the field with his pioneering research in neuroscience throughout his career. In the early 1990s, along with fellow Picower Institute investigator Matt Wilson, PhD, he developed the state-space paradigm – a novel algorithm that decoded the position of an animal by observing the activity of a small group of place cells in the animal’s brain. “One of the basic questions at the time was whether an animal holds a representation of where it is in its mind — in the hippocampus,” Dr. Brown said. “We were able to show that it did, and we could show that with only 30 neurons.” He later synthesized this initial concept for other situations to simultaneously track neural activity and learning and to define, with precision, anesthesia-induced loss of consciousness, as well as its subsequent recovery.

In the early 2000s, he expanded his research by mobilizing a team to specifically study anesthesia’s effects on the brain. Through their combined efforts analyzing the oscillatory patterns observed in EEG with the locations of their molecular targets, Dr. Brown and his team were able to show that altered arousal states produced by the main classes of anesthesia medications can be characterized, as well as the anatomy and physiology of the neural circuits that connect those locations.

Dr. Brown’s research has redefined brain monitoring during general anesthesia for surgery, allowing anesthesiologists to dose patients based on EEG readouts (neural oscillations) of the patient’s anesthetic state rather than purely on vital sign responses. This approach may offer valuable insights into how anesthesia medications are delivered to patients and potential answers for other altered states of arousal such as sleep and coma.

The drive to unravel these mysteries doesn’t stop there for Dr. Brown. Recently in an interview for MIT News, Dr. Brown contemplated his future research and his plans to continue to innovate, beginning with a new research center at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital designed to further integrate anesthesiology with neuroscience research. According to Dr. Brown, the Brain Arousal State Control Innovation Center would capture clues from ongoing anesthesiology research, improve clinical neuroscience, all while advancing anesthesia care.

“By demonstrating that physics and mathematics can make an enormous contribution to neuroscience, doctors Abbott, Brown, Sejnowski, and Sompolinsky have inspired an entire new generation of physicists and other quantitative scientists to follow in their footsteps,” said Frances Jensen, professor and chair of the Department of Neurology and co-director of the Penn Medicine Translational Neuroscience Center within the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and chair of the Selection Advisory Board to the prize. “The ramifications for neuroscience have been broad and profound. It is a great pleasure to be honoring each of them with this prestigious award.”

This report was adapted from the MIT News release.