Michael Merzenich Wins 2016 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience

Research Opened Door to Restoring Damaged Brain Function Through Retraining

portrait of Michael Merzenich
Photo by Susan Merrell

UC San Francisco neuroscientist Michael M. Merzenich, PhD, has been awarded the 2016 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, for his pioneering work on the brain’s “plasticity” – its remarkable ability to rewire itself in response to new conditions, a capacity that underlies learning and offers the potential for retraining the brain in neurodevelopmental disorders and diseases, as well as after injuries that occur later in life.

Merzenich, a professor emeritus at UCSF, shares the prize with Carla J. Shatz, PhD, professor of biology and neurobiology at Stanford University, and Eve Marder, PhD, professor of biology at Brandeis University. The trio received the prize, which carries a cash award of $1 million, “for the discovery of mechanisms that allow experience and neural activity to remodel brain function,” according to the Kavli Prize announcement, made Thursday.

“Michael’s seminal experiments on brain plasticity opened new vistas in our understanding of the brain,” said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “His efforts to translate these basic research findings into new and potential therapies offer hope to patients worldwide. We congratulate him on this great honor.”

Merzenich, who was the UCSF Francis A. Sooy Professor of Otolaryngology, as well as that department’s Vice Chair for Research, began his career in neuroscience in the early 1970s, building on work begun several decades earlier that showed the areas of the brain’s cortex devoted to sensory experience – noticing a touch on the skin, distinguishing objects visually, or perceiving the various sound frequencies in music – are parceled into organized “maps.”

These maps were long thought to be hard-wired by adulthood, with fixed boundaries, a belief that had major implications for medicine: patients who suffered brain damage from stroke, for example, were thought to be unable to regain much of any function they had lost, because brain representations were thought to be immutable from early childhood onward to the end of life.

But in a series of classic experiments, Merzenich and colleagues showed that even in adulthood the brain’s cortical maps are, in fact, “plastic” and that it might be possible to create therapies to restore brain function limited from birth due to genetic variation, or lost through injury or illness. 

Applications for Hearing, Autism, Mental Illness

Merzenich’s research team quickly extended their studies to show that acquiring skills at any age in life arises as a product of physical neurological remodeling in the brain, and demonstrated that under the right conditions, significant improvements in brain function could be achieved with very high efficiency, by the use of computer-controlled training.

black-and-white photo of a young Michael Merzenich working on a cochlear implant
Michael Merzenich is shown at UCSF in 1979, when he was developing a cochlear implant that could restore hearing based on his research in neural plasticity. Photo by David Powers

His team first applied these insights to the development of cochlear implants to restore hearing. Having established some of the neurophysiological underpinnings of present cochlear implant designs beginning in the early 1970s, he later helped conduct one of the first clinical trials of multichannel cochlear implants. Those trials paved the way for the eventual commercialization of UCSF-designed devices in the late 1980s by Advanced Bionics, still one of the world’s leading manufacturers of these hearing-restoring devices.

He went on to explore strategies for retraining the brain in language and reading disorders, developing computerized programs for children that are now widely used throughout the world.

He and his research collaborators have subsequently investigated the use of intensive, plasticity-based, computer-controlled mental and physical training programs to treat autism; schizophrenia; bipolar disorder; functional losses in normal aging; mild cognitive impairment; Alzheimer’s disease; movement disorders associated with Parkinson’s disease; concussion and other mild brain injuries; Huntington’s disease; HIV/AIDS; “chemo brain”; and a variety of other neurological and psychiatric disorders.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, Merzenich remains active as the director of the Brain Plasticity Institute at BrainHQ-Posit Science in San Francisco, and through ongoing collaboration with UCSF scientists and other investigators is trying to address problems of neurological illness and frailty around the world.

"My colleagues and I are enormously grateful to the citizens of California and the country for so generously supporting our research through more than four decades,” Merzenich said. "I especially want to acknowledge the collaborative help of several hundred scientists and hundreds of patient volunteers who contributed so importantly to the body of work acknowledged by this prize. It has been a great privilege for all of us to be able to bring this science out of our UCSF laboratory into the world, to benefit so many children and adults in need."

The Kavli Prizes are a partnership between the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. The prizes, which recognize scientists for pioneering advances in our understanding of existence at its biggest, smallest, and most complex scales, are awarded every two years in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.

The award ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 6 in Oslo, Norway.


Watch Michael Merzenich's 2004 TED Talk about his research on ways to harness the brain's plasticity to enhance our skills and recover lost function: