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Bristol neuroscientist honoured with prize for ground-breaking brain research

Posted in Awards & Appointments on 2nd Mar 2016

A University of Bristol professor is one of three neuroscientists who have won the world’s most valuable prize for brain research, for their outstanding work on the mechanisms of memory.
Professor Graham Collingridge from the University of Bristol, Professor Tim Bliss of University College London, and Professor Richard Morris from the University of Edinburgh, are this year’s winners of The Brain Prize, which is regarded as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for neuroscientists.
Worth one million Euros, The Brain Prize is awarded annually by the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation in Denmark. It recognises one or more scientists who have distinguished themselves by an outstanding contribution to neuroscience.
The research by Professors Collingridge, Bliss and Morris focused on a brain mechanism known as ‘Long-Term Potentiation’ (LTP), which underpins the life-long plasticity of the brain. Their discoveries have revolutionised our understanding of how memories are formed, retained and lost.
The three neuroscientists have independently and collectively shown how the connections – the synapses – between brain cells in the hippocampus (a structure vital for the formation of new memories) can be strengthened through repeated stimulation. LTP is so-called because it can persist indefinitely. Their work has revealed some of the basic mechanisms behind the phenomenon and has shown that LTP is the basis for our ability to learn and remember.
Sir Colin Blakemore, chairman of the selection committee said: ‘Memory is at the heart of human experience. This year’s winners, through their ground-breaking research, have transformed our understanding of memory and learning, and the devastating effects of failing memory.’
Without the capacity to store information in our brains, we could not remember our past and would be incapable of planning our future. Without memory, we could not recognise other people, find our way around in the world or make decisions based on past evidence. We could not learn language, ride a bicycle, drive a car, or use a smart phone. There could be no education, no literature or art.
Professor Collingridge, who works at Bristol MRC Centre for Synaptic Plasticity, said: ‘I am delighted to share this award. Working on the cellular mechanisms of learning and memory has been both richly challenging and intensely rewarding for me. I am really excited about now translating discoveries about LTP into new treatments for dementia.’
The strength of the connections between neurons in the brain – the synapses – can change in response to experience. LTP exemplifies this inherent plasticity, which underlies the brain’s remarkable capacity to reorganise itself, at least to some extent, after damage such as a stroke or after the loss of normal input, as in blindness.
Conversely, deficits and disorders in the capacity to alter synaptic strength appear to be involved in many brain-related conditions affecting millions of people around the world, including autism, schizophrenia, stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, epilepsy and addiction. New and emerging knowledge of the role of LTP will help guide the way to improving treatments.
Professor Collingridge developed and applied techniques to identify several of the key molecules responsible for LTP. He is particularly known for discovering the role of the so-called NMDA receptor in the induction of LTP. The NMDA receptor is a protein in the brain that is important for communication amongst nerve cells.
Professors Bliss, Collingridge and Morris will share the prize of one million Euros, which will be presented to them at a ceremony on 1 July in Copenhagen by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark.
The award to three UK neuroscientists testifies to the strong and sustained support that the UK funding bodies, particularly the Medical Research Council, have given to their research over the past three decades.