February 8, 2011

Salk professor Terrence Sejnowski elected to National Academy of Engineering

Salk News

Salk professor Terrence Sejnowski elected to National Academy of Engineering

LA JOLLA, CA—Salk Institute professor Terry J. Sejnowski, Ph.D., has been elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering, an honor considered one of the highest accolades in the engineering world. Dr. Sejnowski, whose work on neural networks helped spark the neural networks revolution in computing in the 1980s, is recognized for his “contributions to artificial and real neural network algorithms and applying signal processing models to neuroscience.”

Dr. Sejnowski is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, making him one of only ten living individuals to have been elected to all three branches of the National Academies.

“Terry is a truly visionary scientist,” said Salk president William R. Brody. “He was the first one to apply the power of computing to the brain, pioneering the field of computational neuroscience. It’s a beautiful example of how transcending disciplines can revolutionize science and open up entirely new fields of study. We are very proud of what Terry and his students have accomplished.”

Dr. Sejnowski, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory, studies real neural networks in which the interaction of many neurons produces surprisingly complex behavior, and he has also shown how artificial neural networks can solve practical engineering problems.

A physicist by training, he combines both experimental and modeling techniques, habitually overthrowing scientific dogma. For decades the assumption was that the most important information from neurons was the total number of times the neurons fired. Dr. Sejnowski, however, discovered that the timing and pattern of nerve impulses is just as important for understanding brain function. Similarly, he demonstrated that the release of chemical signals from nerves isn’t restricted to synapses, as neuroscientists had previously believed, but takes place outside the expected region.

He has created computer models of networks of neurons to explore the mechanisms underlying attention in the awake brain and brain rhythms in the sleeping brain and the links between them. These models also help explain how epilepsy arises from imbalances in brain circuits.

By studying how computer simulations can perform operations that resemble the activities of the cerebral cortex, Dr. Sejnowski hopes to gain new knowledge of how the human brain is capable of learning and storing memories. This knowledge ultimately may provide medical specialists with critical clues to combating schizophrenia and other disorders that rob people of their critical thinking ability and memory for faces, names, places and events.

Dr. Sejnowski joins Dr. Irwin Jacobs, chair of the Salk Board of Trustees, and Dr. William Brody as the third member of the National Academy of Engineering at the Salk Institute.

About Terrence J. Sejnowski:

Dr. Sejnowski graduated from Case Western Reserve University and earned his doctorate in physics at Princeton University. After completing postdoctoral research studies in biology at Princeton and in neurobiology at Harvard University, he held an appointment in the department of biophysics at Johns Hopkins University before he was appointed a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. In 1988, he joined the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where he directs the Crick-Jacobs Center for Computational Neurobiology. He also heads the Institute for Neural Computation and co-directs the NSF Science of Learning Center, both at UCSD.

In addition to being a member of the National Academy of Engineering, Dr. Sejnowski is a member of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences and has been the recipient of multiple honors, including the Wright Prize for interdisciplinary research from Harvey Mudd College, the Hebb Prize and the Neural Network Pioneer Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has published over 300 scientific papers and 12 books, including The Computational Brain, with UC San Diego professor of philosophy Patricia Churchland.

About the National Academy of Engineering

Founded in 1964, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) provides engineering leadership in service to the nation. The NAE operates under the same congressional act of incorporation that established the National Academy of Sciences, signed in 1863 by President Lincoln. Under this charter the NAE is directed “whenever called upon by any department or agency of the government, to investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art.”

About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is one of the world’s preeminent basic research institutions, where internationally renowned faculty probe fundamental life science questions in a unique, collaborative, and creative environment. Focused both on discovery and on mentoring future generations of researchers, Salk scientists make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, aging, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and infectious diseases by studying neuroscience, genetics, cell and plant biology and related disciplines.

Faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel Prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1960 by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, M.D., the Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark.

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