The 2018 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience honors researchers that unraveled the sense of hearing

Today, May 31, the 2018 Kavli Prize laureates in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience were announced. I am chair of the Neuroscience Prize Committee and had the pleasure of presenting the three 2018 neuroscience laureates:

James Hudspeth
Rockefeller University, New York, USA

Robert Fettiplace
University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Christine Petit 
Collège de France/Pasteur Institute, Paris, FRANCE

These excellent researchers are awarded the Kavli Prize “for their pioneering work on the molecular and neural mechanisms of hearing”. The announcement was made live from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Oslo.

The Kavli Prizes recognize scientists in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience for advancing our understanding of the “biggest, smallest, and most complex”. Each of three international prizes consists of one million US dollars. Laureates are chosen by committees whose members are recommended by six of the world’s most renowned science societies and academies. Winners receive gold medals in Oslo, Norway, in a ceremony presided over by His Majesty King Harald. The ceremony takes place in September..

Here is the speech I gave earlier today, live from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters:

“As I speak to you now, you are engaging an incredibly sophisticated sense that we sometimes underappreciate, yet is central to our daily lives: hearing. We can hear frequencies from 20hz to 20,000, discern the pitch of one thirtieth of the difference between two piano keys, and detect signals that vibrate our ear drums by one billionth of a millimeter.

Uniquely among our sensory organs, the ear converts sound – pressure waves in the air –   into electrical activity, and in doing so, transforms sounds into signals that the brain can record and that we can grasp as speech, enjoy as music or disregard as noise.

The three Kavli Prize neuroscience laureates have used complementary approaches to unravel the mechanisms by which the inner ear processes sound, via sensory receptors called hair cells.

James Hudspeth has provided the major framework for our understanding of the transduction of sound into neural signals. Extending from each hair cell is a bundle of fine protrusions that act as sensors. Hudspeth used ingenious methods to reveal how sound-induced vibrations, evoke an electrical response in the hair cells, via a direct mechanical connection between the hair bundle and ion channels. Critical to hearing, his work also revealed how sound signals, which can be very weak, are strongly amplified within the inner ear.

Robert Fettiplace has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of sound transduction, and demonstrated that each hair cell is sensitive to a specific range of sound frequencies. His experiments revealed that hair cells are organized in a pattern that reflects their frequency selectivity. Using sensitive physiological measurements and theoretical modeling, he discovered that this selectivity reflects an intrinsic electrical property of the cell. This is set by the density and kinetics of its ion channels, and induces a resonance at a particular frequency.

Christine Petit has explored the genetics of hereditary deafness in humans, and identified more than twenty genes that are required for hearing and inner ear development. She elucidated the mechanisms through which these mutations cause hearing defects, thus illuminating the unique biology of hair cells. In the clinic, her work has helped improve deafness diagnosis, and subsequent counseling. Several of the genes she identified form major components of the hair cell machinery that converts soundwaves to electrical activity.

Collectively, the breakthroughs made by this year’s Kavli Prize laureates have unveiled the molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie hearing – and deafness. In doing so, they have shined light on the sense that allows us to hear music and to listen to each other. Their work serves as a sterling example of how concerted efforts across disciplines can revolutionize our understanding of complex neurobiological processes.”

A more detailed description can be found here.



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