Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize: a Nobel Prize Predictor

Six winners of a not so famous award based at UNC have gone on to win the highest honor in medicine.

Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize: a Nobel Prize Predictor click to enlarge May-Britt and Edvard Moser
Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize: a Nobel Prize Predictor click to enlarge William D. Snider, MD

This week, Edvard and May-Britt Moser of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of specialized brain cells that form a kind of positioning system or a map in the brain that helps us navigate our surroundings, as well as organize cognitive plans and memories.

If their names ring a bell, it might be because they won a Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize in 2012 for the same research. In fact, Edvard and May-Britt-Moser are the fifth and sixth recipients of the Perl-UNC Prize that have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.

That makes for six out of 14 Perl-UNC Neuroscience prize recipients to go on to win a Nobel Prize.

“This is really a testament to the selection process for our award,” said Willliam D. Snider, MD, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center and chair of the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize committee. “We strive to pick innovative researchers who conduct seminal research that has or will have a broad, important impact on our field and all of medicine.”

The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize is named after long-time 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, who died this past July at the age of 87, teamed up with Dr. Snider in 2000 to establish the award to recognize researchers making contributions integral to our understanding of the brain and the human condition, in general.

The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize as a predictor of Nobel Prize winners is made even more impressive by the fact that the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine transcends neuroscience.

“It really is amazing that many of the most compelling recent breakthroughs in medical research have happened our field,” Snider said. “And I think this will only continue, thanks in part of the NIH BRAIN Initiative.”

The BRAIN Initiative is a multi-million dollar effort to create the next generation of tools, methods, and technologies that will help neuroscientists explore the brain and make discoveries important for human health.

Last week, three UNC researchers – Bryan L. Roth, MD, PhD; Thomas Kash, Phd; and Jian Jin, PhD – received a $2.85-million dollar BRAIN Initiative grant. Previous to that, Spencer Smith, PhD, received a pair of grants from the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation that were designed to support the BRAIN Initiative.

“Our Neuroscience Center researchers are doing tremendous research to advance our understanding of the brain in relation to some of the most serious, debilitating, and common diseases,” Snider said.

Because the Perl-UNC Neuroscience prize was established at UNC – though a few non-UNC researchers are on the selection committee – there’s a rule that no UNC faculty member can win the award. 

“But that doesn’t mean our people are not worthy,” Snider said. “In fact, a few people on the selection committee really lobbied hard for one of our UNC researchers to win it before realizing that the rules prohibited it.”

Here’s a list of Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize winners.

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