Carla Shatz wins Kavli Neuroscience Prize

Carla Shatz celebrates her Kavli Neuroscience Prize with members of her lab on June 2.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

June 2, 2016

The neurobiologist received the recognition for her work in understanding how the brain’s connections form. She will share a $1 million prize with two other winners.

Carla Shatz, PhD, professor of neurobiology and of biology at Stanford, has won the 2016 Kavli Neuroscience Prize for her work in understanding how the brain’s wiring takes shape during development.

She was one of two Kavli Prize winners from Stanford announced on June 2. The other was Calvin Quate, PhD, emeritus professor of electrical engineering and of applied physics, who won the Nanoscience Prize for the invention of atomic force microscopy.

“Carla Shatz and Calvin Quate are pioneers in their fields, and the Kavli Prize reflects the significance of their groundbreaking contributions that have advanced our knowledge of neuroscience and nanoscience,” said Stanford President John Hennessy. “For Stanford to have dual winners is an extraordinary honor and affirms the wide-ranging impact of the interdisciplinary research being done at the university.”

The Kavli Prizes are awarded every other year in the areas of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. The prize is a partnership among the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, The Kavli Foundation and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. Winners of each prize will receive a gold medal and share $1 million, given during an awards ceremony in Oslo.

Shatz, who is the director of Stanford Bio-X, shares the Neuroscience Prize along with Eve Marder, PhD, of Brandeis University, and Michael Merzenich, PhD, of UC-San Francisco. Quate shares the Nanoscience Prize with Gerd Benning, PhD, a former member of IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, and Christoph Gerber, PhD, of the University of Basel.

Previous Stanford winners of the Kavli Prize include Thomas Sudhof, MD, the Avram Goldstein Professor in the School of Medicine, who went on to win the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; and Andrei Linde, PhD, the Harald Trap Friis Professor of Physics.

‘Fire together, wire together’

Shatz learned of her prize the day before, immediately following the annual Shooter Lecture, which was given this year by Marder, her co-winner. “Eve had just given this incredible talk and we were heading to a reception,” Shatz said. That’s when Shatz got a message to return an urgent phone call and learned of her award. She went back to the reception and encouraged Marder to return that same call.

Shatz has won a number of awards for her work and said each time it feels very precious.

“As a scientist I do what I do because I love going to work every day,” she said. “Getting this kind of recognition in my field is an incredible gift and I feel very grateful.”

She has spent her career focusing on understanding the changes that take place during the development of the brain, particularly the region that receives information from the eyes. This work has had implications for understanding learning and in neurodegenerative disease.

As a scientist I do what I do because I love going to work every day.

Her research uncovered mechanisms the brain uses to determine which of the myriad brain connections present before birth get strengthened and which are pruned to create our adult wiring. These same mechanisms are at play — albeit far less flexibly or frequently — throughout life. Her work revealed that as the brain develops, neurons that fire at the same time form stable connections. Those that fire out of sync lose their connections and get pruned back. This discovery led to the phrase, “Cells that fire together, wire together,” along with, “Cells that fire out of sync, lose their link.”

Shatz also pioneered the discovery that certain well-known proteins once believed to be in the exclusive employ of the immune system also moonlight in the brain, where they play a key role in detecting which neurons are firing out of sync and should be pruned back. In mouse models, she and her colleagues have shown that manipulating the availability of some of these proteins might be able to reverse brain damage that occurs in Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.

“This was exciting because it was the first time anybody could show a role for these proteins in the brain,” Shatz has said. She said at the time people thought her findings were incorrect, or that the immune system was controlling the way the circuits formed. In later work she was able to show that the proteins, called MHCs, were active in neurons.

An early interest in brain activity

Shatz received her undergraduate degree from Radcliffe College and then did her graduate work at Harvard, where she studied under David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, the 1981 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, who stimulated her lifelong interest in understanding how the brain’s activity controls its wiring.

In 1976, Shatz became the first woman to earn a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard University. She joined the faculty of Stanford University in 1978, and then took a faculty position at UC-Berkeley in 1992. She returned to Harvard in 2000 as the first woman to chair its Department of Neurobiology. In 2007, she returned to Stanford to become the director of Stanford Bio-X, the landmark bioscience research effort that promotes interdisciplinary collaborations among life scientists, medical scientists, engineers, physicists and scholars in other disciplines.

Shatz has said that moving to Stanford and having a lab in the interdisciplinary Clark Center, which is a hub for Bio-X, has increased her collaborations and expanded the kinds of science she can do. “Now we have this fabulous collaboration with a serious immunology lab, and because of it we may be able to make new drugs that might even work to treat Alzheimer’s one day,” she has said.

Shatz, who is the Sapp Family Provostial Professor, is a past president of the Society for Neuroscience. She is also a member of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the Royal Society (London) and the American Philosophical Society. Among the numerous prestigious awards that she has won over the course of her career are the Gruber Prize (2015), the Sackler Prize (2013) and the Society for Neuroscience’s Gerard Prize (2011).

Writers Bruce Goldman, Amy Adams and Bjorn Carey contributed to this story. It originally appeared here.