Society for Neuroscience Outstanding Achievement Awards
Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience: Robert Desimone and Jon Kaas
The Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience honors outstanding scientists who have made significant contributions to neuroscience throughout his or her careers. The highest recognition conferred by the Society, the prize is named for the revered neuroscientist Dr. Ralph W. Gerard who helped establish the Society for Neuroscience and served as its honorary president. The honorees share a $30,000 prize. Robert Desimone, the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has helped lay the foundation for our current understanding of cortical function in the visual system. His seminal work on attention spans decades, including the discovery of a neural basis for covert attention in the temporal cortex (independent of moving an eye or hand to a stimulus) and the creation of the biased competition model, positing that attention is biased towards material relevant to the task. More recent work revealed how synchronized brain rhythms help enhance visual processing. Desimone also helped discover both face cells and neural populations that identify objects even when the size or location of the object changes. His long list of contributions includes mapping the extrastriate visual cortex, publishing the first report of columns for motion processing outside the primary visual cortex, and discovering how the temporal cortex retains memories. Desimone’s work has moved the field from broad strokes of input and output to a more nuanced understanding of cortical function that allows the brain to make sense of the environment. Jon Kaas, a distinguished centennial professor at Vanderbilt University, has had a groundbreaking career revealing the structure and function of the cerebral cortex, as well as the plasticity of the adult brain. Through decades of detailed research, Kaas mapped the cortex in nearly thirty mammalian species, from chimpanzees to hedgehogs, providing a clearer understanding of the evolution of the human brain and its capabilities. By integrating fine-grained electrophysical mapping with detailed anatomical reconstructions, his work has revealed the functional and structural organization of sensory systems, including the visual system and somatosensory system, across multiple species. Kaas also helped demonstrate that the adult brain is capable of functional reorganization following injury or motor training, helping to overturn the doctrine that plasticity was limited to early life. This work has led to more effective approaches to rehabilitation after brain damage following stroke, macular degeneration, or motor system disorders and injuries. The atlases Kaas has helped establish — identifying component structures, the inputs and outputs to those structures, and their functional topography — have laid the foundation for all studies of function, while his work showing that these maps are continuously revisable via life-long plasticity revolutionized rehabilitation strategies.