October 16, 2007
La Jolla, CA – The Cajal Club has selected Dennis O’Leary, professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, to receive the 2007 Krieg Cortical Discoverer Prize for his outstanding research on the mechanisms guiding the functional organization of the cerebral cortex, the brain’s powerful central processing unit responsible for higher brain functions.
The award will be formally awarded at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego on Nov. 4 and includes the Cajal medal and certificate, plus a cash prize.
In the cerebral cortex, specialized functional subdivisions known as areas are laid out like a map, but little is known about the genetic forces that shape this form of cortical geography. O’Leary was the first to show that specific genes control the formation and identity of these functional areas, which are responsible for sensory perception, body movements, cognition, and the coordination of these and other complex phenomena. O’Leary’s pioneering work on the genetic regulation of area patterning also provided the foundation for his recent demonstration that functional areas must be just the right size for optimal performance of relevant behaviors.
O’Leary’s earlier work on cortical development included the discovery of “exuberant” axonal projections and the phenomenon of axonal “pruning,” both of which are now known to be fundamental features of the development of neural circuits, and form the basis of functional plasticity following brain injury or genetic defects.
In addition to his work on cortical development and plasticity, O’Leary also studies how neural maps are established, in particular how retinal axons – hairlike fibers extended by retinal cells – find their way to the visual centers in the brain and establish orderly synaptic connections within them. As part of this work, he defined the roles of the first known guidance molecules that control the development of neural maps, the so-called ephrins and their receptors, the Ephs. These proteins either repel or attract growing axons, guiding them to their correct targets.
Dennis O’Leary earned his Ph.D. in Neural Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and carried out postdoctoral studies at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. After a brief period as Research Assistant Professor at the Salk, he returned to St. Louis to take a faculty position at Washington University Medical School, rising to the rank of tenured associate professor. He joined the Salk faculty in December of 1990, and was promoted to full professor in 1993.
Dr. O’Leary has been the recipient of multiple honors. In 2003, he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among his other honors are the Javits Investigator Award in Neuroscience; the McKnight Investigator Award as well as the McKnight Scholar Award; the Decade of the Brain Medal; the Capputto Memorial Award; and the Ariens-Kappers Award. O’Leary also received the prestigious Young Investigator Award from the Society of Neuroscience one year after joining the Salk faculty. In addition, he served for 10 years as senior editor of the Journal of Neuroscience, the official peer-reviewed research journal of the Society for Neuroscience.
Founded in 1947, the Cajal Club is the oldest ongoing neuroscience professional society. The original covenant of the Cajal Club specified that one of its main aims was to revere Ramón y Cajal, one of the founders of modern neuroscience. Cajal postulated that the nervous system is made up of billions of separate neurons that communicate with each other via specialized junctions called synapses.
Each year since 1987, the Cajal Club has honored outstanding neuroscientists for their research investigations into the organization, function and development of the cerebral cortex. The awards are funded by donations from Dr. Wendell J. Krieg, the first president of the Cajal Club, and his wife, Roberta, and are awarded at three different levels of achievement.
The Cortical Discoverer Prize is given to a senior scientist who has contributed significantly to our understanding of the cerebral cortex. Two other awards are for investigators at earlier career stages, and include the Cortical Scholar Prize, awarded to a predoctoral fellow at the completion of their doctoral dissertation, and the Cortical Explorer Prize, awarded to a scientist at an intermediate career stage.
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to fundamental discoveries in the life sciences, the improvement of human health, and the training of future generations of researchers. Jonas Salk, M.D., whose polio vaccine all but eradicated the crippling disease poliomyelitis in 1955, opened the Institute in 1965 with a gift of land from the City of San Diego and the financial support of the March of Dimes.