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The Danish neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard, MD, DMSc, professor in the department of neurology at the University of Rochester, will receive the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize at a ceremony in March.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – The UNC School of Medicine has awarded the esteemed 21st Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize to Maiken Nedergaard, MD, DMSc, from the University of Rochester, for the “discovery of the glymphatic system.”

Dr. Nedergaard will visit Chapel Hill March 9, 2023 to receive the prize – a $20,000 award – and give a lecture on her work at 4 p.m. in room G202 of the Medical Biomolecular Research Building (MBRB).

Her seminal research centered on the discovery of the glymphatic system, a brain network that clears metabolites and waste products through cerebrospinal fluid while we sleep. She dubbed it the glymphatic system due to its reliance on glial cells – non-neuronal cells in the central nervous system that do not produce electrical impulses but support and protect neurons.

Since her 2013 discovery, which earned her the “Breakthrough of the Year” honor from Science Magazine, there has been increasing work and interest in the glymphatic system and its relevance in age-related neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease; in neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder; and in healing after traumatic injury. Research has continued to show this system is robust and biologically conserved in multiple species, and it is linked to the lymphatic system – a separate network of vessels through which lymph drains from tissues into the circulatory system.

Nedergaard’s later research and that of colleagues revealed that the aquaporin-4 water channel protein plays an important role in controlling the flow of cerebral spinal fluid between the spaces around blood vessels and around nervous system cells.

“The age-old question of why do we sleep has long been a mystery,” said Mark Zylka, PhD, chair of the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize committee and director of the UNC Neuroscience Center. “Dr. Nedergaard’s research showed that the brain has these tiny channels that open at night and help to clear out waste products while we are deep asleep. This nightly cleaning process is undoubtedly important in helping us to feel mentally refreshed when we wake up each morning.”

Dr. Nedergaard earned her medical degree in 1983 and her doctorate of medical science in 1988, both from the University of Copenhagen. She conducted her postdoctoral training at Cornell University and the University of Copenhagen.

“I want to thank the UNC School of Medicine for this recognition, and I am honored to join the other distinguished scientists who have been awarded the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize,” said Nedergaard, who is also co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester and the University of Copenhagen. “Discoveries like that of the glymphatic system are only achieved through teamwork, and it is important also recognize Jeff Iliff, Helene Benveniste, Steve Goldman, and many others who made important contributions to this work.”

The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize, established in 2000, is named after former UNC professor Edward Perl, MD, who discovered that a specific type of sensory neuron responded to painful stimuli. Before this, scientists thought that sensory neurons responded to all stimuli and that 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 passed away in 2014. Read more about his research in this remembrance.

Along with chair Mark Zylka, PhD, the W.R. Kenan Distinguished Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology at the UNC School of Medicine, the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize selection committee consists of: David Anderson, PhD, the Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology at Caltech; Ben Philpot, PhD, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology and Associate Director of the UNC Neuroscience Center; Catherine Dulac, PhD, the Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard School of Medicine, Gwenn Garden, MD, PhD, the H. Houston Merritt Distinguished Professor and Chair of Neurology at the UNC School of Medicine, Liqun Luo, PhD, the Ann & Bill Swindells Professor of Biology at Stanford University, and Beth Stevens, PhD, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

UNC School of Medicine contact: Mark Derewicz