Brain Cell Research Discoveries Lead to $500,000 Prize for Jans

Brain Development and Neurological Diseases Are Better Understood Thanks to UCSF Pair

By Jeffrey Norris

For microscopic brain cells to “fire” and transmit signals, they rely on the movement of electrically charged potassium atoms through tiny channels. Discoveries related to how this occurs and can go awry in disease now have garnered UCSF researchers Lily Jan, PhD, and Yuh Nung Jan, PhD, a $500,000 prize from the Gruber Foundation.

Lily Jan, PhD, and Yuh Nung Jan, PhD

Lily Jan, PhD, and Yuh Nung Jan, PhD, will receive the $500,000 Gruber Foundation Neuroscience Prize.

The Gruber Foundation announced on June 12 that the husband-and-wife research team will receive the foundation’s 2012 Neuroscience Prize on October 14 in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. The Jans will be awarded the prize for groundbreaking studies on how brain cell activity is controlled by potassium channels and on how brain cells become specialized as they develop within the embryo.

In addition to the $500,000 prize the Jans will receive a gold medal and a citation, which notes that “the remarkable and continuing advances by the Jans have provided key insights into the development and function of the nervous system, and have inspired and guided both trainees and other investigators to pursue two important areas of research.”

The Jans’ identification of genetic mutations in potassium channel that cause behavioral disturbances in fruit flies led to the discovery of similar mutations responsible for human diseases.

The Jans also were among the first to show that small molecules called peptides can act as neurotransmitters that transmit signals between neurons, leading to the identification of many such neurotransmitter peptides that play roles in health and disease.

In addition, the Jans have shed light on how neurons diversify during development, and on how neurons develop dendrites, the branched extensions that receive sensory inputs from the environment or signals from nearby neurons and integrate the input received.

The neuroscience prize has been awarded since 2004, and the 2012 award marks the second time the foundation has recognized neuroscience research conducted at UCSF. UCSF neuroscientist Roger Nicoll, MD, shared the prize with Japanese researcher Masao Ito, MD, PhD, in 2006 for studies on the molecular and cellular foundations of memory and learning.

The Gruber Foundation is located at Yale University. The Gruber International Prize Program honors individuals in the fields of cosmology, genetics and neuroscience, “whose groundbreaking work provides new models that inspire and enable fundamental shifts in knowledge and culture,” according to the foundation The foundation will announce the 2012 Cosmology Prize on June 20, and the 2012 Genetics Prize on June 28.

Related Links:

Gruber Foundation 2012 Neuroscience Prize

Lily Jan: Jan Tunes In Potassium Channels

Learning and Memory — A Long Term Journey

Jan Lab at UCSF

Related Links