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Princeton’s David Tank wins Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize

Media contact: Mark Derewicz, 919.923.0959, mark.derewicz@unch.unc.edu

January 15, 2014

CHAPEL HILL, NC – The UNC School of Medicine has awarded the 15th Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize to David W. Tank, PhD, the Henry Hillman Professor in Molecular Biology at Princeton University, for the “discovery of fundamental mechanisms of neural computation.”

Tank, who is also the co-director of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, has made key contributions to the development of novel imaging and computational research methods, which are critical for the study brain circuit functions. At Bell Labs, he was part of the research team that first used BOLD contrast for functional MRI to pinpoint the precise human brain areas activated by visual stimuli and during coordinated hand movements.

Tank has been a leader in the development and use of two-photon microscopy and other techniques for imaging calcium signals in neurons of living animals – a research method that is now commonly used to visualize the interaction of brain circuits. He also was integral in developing computational models of cellular and brain circuit mechanisms important for human cognition.

William L. Roper, MD, MPH, dean of the UNC School of Medicine, will present the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Award to Dr. Tank in a ceremony 3 pm Thursday May 14 at UNC’s Medical Biomolecular Research Building (MBRB), lecture hall G202. A talk by Dr. Tank and reception will follow.

“Both at Bell Laboratories, and now Princeton, I’ve been fortunate to have the freedom, resources, and smart colleagues to allow me to explore new technological methods and models that can help us understand how information is represented in the activity patterns of neurons and how it is related to cognition, said Tank, who is part of the 15-member advisory committee for the NIH BRAIN Initiative. “It is an exciting time to be a systems neuroscientist and I’m honored to have received the 15th Perl Prize.”

The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize, which carries a $20,000 cash award, is given annually to an active researcher who has made a seminal discovery that advances our understanding of the brain.

“David Tank has been a leader in our field for many years,” said William Snider, MD, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center and chairman of the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize selection committee. “His work continues to advance key technologies. Most recently, he has pioneered the use of two-photon microscopy and intracellular recordings in the brains of animals in virtual reality environments.” This work has provided researchers new ways to study neural circuits in awake mice during navigation.

Tank’s current research focuses on mechanisms of short-term memory and decision making. His studies suggest that memory is actually encoded in the dynamics of neural circuits. Uncovering the basic biological mechanisms of short-term memory has implications for millions of people, especially those with neurodegenerative conditions.

The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize is becoming increasingly well known among biomedical scientists. Six of its previous winners went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine or The Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Two other Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize recipients went on to win the Kavli Prize, which to neuroscientists has become nearly as prestigious as the Nobel.

The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize, established in 2000, is named after former UNC professor Edward Perl, MD, who discovered that a specific type of sensory neuron responded to painful stimuli. Before this, scientists thought that neurons responded to all stimuli and then the pain responses were sorted out in the spinal cord. The discovery had a major impact on the field of pain research, particularly in the development of pain medications.

Dr. Perl passed away in 2014. Read more about his research in this remembrance.

Along with Dr. Snider, this year’s Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize committee consisted of Tom Jessell, HHMI investigator and the Claire Tow Professor in the Department of Neuroscience and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University; Huda Akil, PhD, MBNI Distinguished University Professor and Quarton Professor of Neurosciences at the University of Michigan and co-director of the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute; Joe Gleeson, MD, HHMI investigator and Professor and head of the Laboratory of Pediatric Brain Diseases at the Rockefeller University; Rachel Wong, PhD, Professor of Biological Structure at the University of Washington; and Mark Zylka, PhD, associate professor, and Ben Philpot, PhD, professor, both in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology in the UNC School of Medicine and members of the UNC Neuroscience Center.