Kavli Prize Awarded to Pasko Rakic, Pioneering Yale Neuroscientist

Today Pasko Rakic, professor of neurobiology and neurology at Yale University School of Medicine, was named one of the inaugural recipients of the Kavli Prizes, for his key role in changing our understanding of the cerebral cortex, the seat of human cognitive function.

Today Pasko Rakic, professor of neurobiology and neurology at Yale University School of Medicine, was named one of the inaugural recipients of the Kavli Prizes, for his key role in changing our understanding of the cerebral cortex, the seat of human cognitive function.

The million-dollar Kavli Prizes complement the Nobel Prizes, which since 1901 have been given for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. The three new awards will be presented biannually to scientists who have transformed human knowledge in the fields of nanoscience, neuroscience and astrophysics. Rakic was one of seven scientists honored with the first Kavli Prizes.

The award is given in a partnership between the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, The Kavli Foundation, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.  The 2008 laureates were selected for groundbreaking research that has significantly advanced our understanding of the unusual properties of matter on an ultra-small scale, the basic circuitry of the human brain and the nature of quasars.

Rakic, a neurosurgeon-turned-neuroscientist, is being honored for a pioneering series of anatomical studies carried out over the past three decades that revealed how neurons in the developing cerebral cortex are generated and how they assemble themselves into highly ordered, distinctively layered, and densely interconnected circuits that direct higher order sensory and motor functions.

“Pasko Rakic has contributed much to our understanding of brain function, defining the mechanisms by which cortical neurons move to the proper location within the cerebral cortex,” said Robert Alpern, Dean of the Yale School of Medicine.  “He is an outstanding scientist who has not only made significant contributions himself, but has developed an exceptional department of neurobiology here at Yale.” 

Early in his career, Rakic discovered that previously enigmatic support cells, known as radial glia, serve as guides for the migration of cortical neurons in the developing brain, and showed how this process is critical for the organization of the multi-layered structure of the cerebral cortex. His radial unit hypothesis set the stage for our current view of the evolutionary steps involved in constructing ever more complex and sophisticated vertebrate brains.

Rakic also introduced the influential idea that different regions of the cerebral cortex acquire many of their specialized anatomical and functional properties through genetic programs intrinsic to the cortex itself. His early studies have, in large part, led to the current emphasis on and interest in mechanisms of cortical development.

With the citation “for discoveries on the developmental and functional logic of neuronal circuits,” Rakic shares the Kavli Prize for neuroscience with Thomas Jessell of Columbia University and Sten Grillner of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Jessell’s ressearch revealed the chemical signals that drive early progeni¬tor cells into the complex assembly that makes up neuronal circuits, and Grillner showed how neural circuits in mammalian spinal cords generate motor commands for rhythmic movements such as locomotion.

“Together Rakic, Jessell and Grillner have managed to decipher the mechanisms that govern the formation and functioning of the complex networks of the neural system to a level of understanding never previously achieved,” said Jon Storm-Mathisen, professor of anatomy at the University of Oslo, and chair of the Kavli Neuroscience Prize Committee. “The insight spans from the level of signaling molecules to cell and network wiring and action, to behavior. The new knowledge carries promise for future treatments of brain disorders by repairing damaged circuits.”

The seven winners — who hail from the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan and the United States — will receive a scroll, medal and a share of the $1 million for each area. Ole Didrik Lærum, President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, revealed the names of those selected to receive the awards at a ceremony in Oslo. The announcement was transmitted via a live simulcast to Columbia University, New York, where it was part of the opening of the first annual World Science Festival.

The Kavli Prize is named for, and funded by Fred Kavli, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who was inspired to seek a career in science and engineering while marveling at the northern lights in the skies above the tiny Norwegian village where he grew up. He later moved to the US where he founded the Kavlico Corporation, which became one of the world’s largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautic, automotive and industrial application.

Attending the ceremony in New York, Kavli said, “The Kavli Prizes were created to recognize achievements in three exceptionally exciting fields which we believe promise remarkable future discoveries and benefits for humanity in the 21st century and beyond.”

“Through these prizes, we hope to honour, support and bring recognition to scientists who have not only pondered the same questions, but whose work has profoundly advanced the frontiers of our knowledge,” Kavil said. “We aim to do so while raising people’s awareness of the benefits of fundamental science to their own, everyday lives.”

Sir Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, the UK’s academy of science, said: “The Kavli Prizes highlight three challenging and important fields of research. The choice of winners highlights the international character of modern science, and illustrates that many major advances depends on cooperative and group efforts rather than single individuals.”

Rakic was born in Yugoslavia where he studied medicine at the University of Belgrade, and initially worked as a neurosurgeon. His research career began in 1962, with a fellowship at Harvard University. His work transformed the field of neuroscience from one of static description of the location of neurons at different stages of development to one that reflected the process of development. Rakic often collaborated with his wife, Patricia Goldman-Rakic, a renowned neurobiologist in her own right, until her untimely death in 2003.

At Yale, Rakic is the Duberg Professor of Neurobiology and Neurology, chair of the Department of Neurobiology, and director of the Kavli Institute of Neuroscience. Among his numerous honors, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A profile of Rakic that appeared in Nature Medicine is available. Here he discusses his work.

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this

Media Contact

Janet Rettig Emanuel: janet.emanuel@yale.edu, 203-432-2157