A 1960 graduate of Lebanon High School will be traveling to Norway this fall to receive the 2016 Kavli Prize, an international award for neuroscience.
Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, and chief scientific officer of Posit Science Corp., will share the $1 million prize with Carla Shatz, professor of biology and neurobiology at Stanford University, and Eve Marder, professor of biology at Brandeis University.
The three are being honored “for the discovery of mechanisms that allow experience and neural activity to remodel brain function,” according to the Kavli website.
The scientists, along with the 2016 winners for astrophysics and nanoscience, will be presented gold medals Sept. 6 at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, to be attended by members of the Norwegian royal family.
Merzenich, 74, said he wasn’t expecting the award, which is given only every two years. He was delighted at the acknowledgment of the work he and his teams have led.
“My favorite scientific colleagues and my friends and family get to go to Norway and meet the prince, and it will be fun,” he said in a phone interview from San Francisco.
As for the money: “My wife and I have a general policy that a prize like this should be in a sense given back somehow. We’ll sort that out.”
Merzenich — pronounced pretty much like it looks: MER-zen-ick — is known for his work demonstrating and developing brain “plasticity.” That’s the potential the brain shows for finding a workaround whenever an injury, disease or other disorder gets in the way. “That’s its big trick,” he said.
Merzenich’s research indicates the brain has the capacity to remodel itself in numerous ways, which has far-reaching implications for some of the biggest issues with which humanity struggles: Alzheimer’s. Autism. Parkinson’s disease. Depression. Attention deficit disorder. Schizophrenia. Concussions.
In effect, his research demonstrates, the old adage about teaching an old dog new tricks is not only possible — it results in a far healthier dog.
“We understand the basics of change, so to some extent we can change it at will,” he said.
'A little gang'
Merzenich credited his family, his church and his East Linn County childhood with pointing him toward the science that is, quite literally, changing people’s lives.
The middle of six children born to Ed and Alma Merzenich — “We were sort of a little gang in Lebanon,” he joked — Merzenich lived in the southeast section of town, just off Russell Drive, then essentially out in the country. He spent his elementary grades at Crowfoot School and was part of the first class to attend the new Seven Oak Middle School.
Dad was a foreman for the town’s plywood company, which later became Champion International, and Mom stayed home with the little ones, Merzenich said. (Several of the members of his extended family still live in or near Linn County.)
Merzenich grew up fascinated by science, wondering about animals, life cycles and the way the world was put together. Along the way, he said, he developed an interest in the “great things of life, why we do what we do.”
The Merzenichs were regulars at St. Edward Catholic Church, where young Michael vividly remembers hearing the priest say, week after week, that it was the responsibility of parishioners to care for all members of the human family.
That’s a mission he continues to follow, and one shared by his wife, fellow Lebanon alum Diane (McCann) Merzenich. The two have three grown daughters and five grandchildren, all in the San Francisco Bay area.
In school, Merzenich loved math and science — and music, serving as band president, dance band student director and pep band student director in addition to his memberships in the Biology Club, Future Teachers Club and National Honor Society. He was the class salutatorian and received, with classmate Carla Garrison, the "Most Scholarly" senior award.
After graduation, he received a scholarship to the University of Portland, a private Roman Catholic university, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree.
At the university, he made a connection with a UP alumnus who owned an electrical manufacturing company. The owner donated a veritable truckload of biological recording equipment to the budding neuroscientist, who set up a recording system and started experimenting with recording the reactions to stimuli of the nervous systems of worms and insects.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Merzenich was doing experiments no one else was. Looking for information on how to interpret the reactions he was getting, he talked to a professor who suggested he call the physiology department at the University of Oregon medical school.
Merzenich made a cold call and happened to connect with John Brookhart, who, he learned later, was president of the American Physiological Society and editor in chief of Journal of Neurophysiology.
He met with Brookhart and the scientists working with him on several occasions. It was Brookhart’s suggestion that led Merzenich to medical school at Johns Hopkins University, where he was able to work with Vernon Mountcastle, one of the greatest brain scientists in the world.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for me,” Merzenich recalled. “I was trained in a wonderful place.”
Merzenich earned his Ph.D. in physiology there, then enrolled in the University of Wisconsin for his postdoctoral studies to “refine my skills,” he said.
In 1971, he came to the University of California, becoming a full professor in 1980. While there, his team led a research group that led to the development of the cochlear implant, which allows the brains of those with hearing damage to translate sound signals.
“The medical school is just top-rate. Extremely collaborative, everyone helpful, great place to work and do these sorts of things,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky as you can be, all along.”
Merzenich’s work builds on previous studies that show the brain essentially creates a series of maps to interpret the signals of sight, sound and touch it receives from the world.
Those maps, Merzenich found, aren’t set in stone, even when a person is long past childhood. Given training, they can be altered, edited and sometimes even redrawn entirely.
At Posit Science Corp., where Merzenich is chief scientific officer, the main product is a brain-training system called BrainHQ (both free exercises and a full access subscription system are available online at www.brainhq.com). That’s where his energy is currently focused.
Merzenich has three areas of emphasis for the system. The first is helping people who suffer from injuries or infections, such as brain trauma, HIV/AIDS, concussions and the effects of chemotherapy, which is usually referred to with wry humor as “chemo brain.”
“In every case like this, we know we can drive brain health in an improving direction,” he said.
The system also has implications for children whose brain development might be compromised by circumstances or genetics, he said. Autism, reading problems, attention deficit disorder, conduct disorders and similar issues tend to leave children struggling to find a place in the world. Quite often, they end up suffering from substance abuse or mental illnesses, ending up in prison or otherwise unable to participate fully in society.
“We’re just trying to help young children get off to a better start by helping them brainwise,” Merzenich said. “We’re interested in using brain plasticity to drive them correctly, so they have a better chance of rehabilitation.”
Perhaps the work’s most important element is its ability to become a form of preventative medicine, Merzenich said.
Recent news followed up on a study Posit began 10 years ago. The study indicates people who used an intensive, progressive, computer-based game — the strategies put forward by BrainHQ —continue to benefit from just a few hours of training even after a decade.
Participants had some 10 to 15 hours of computer work in a three-year period, Merzenich said. After five years, compared to their counterparts in the control group, they had fewer road collisions, fewer physician visits and fewer incidences of depression.
After a decade, the study found, even though participants were now around 85 years old, they still have fewer car wrecks and better brain speed on certain tasks. And, he added, the number who have developed any form of dementia is half of what it is in the control group.
If a person could take computer training as a form of preventative medicine, Merzenich said, think what could be accomplished, especially if the person’s family or circumstances put him or her at risk of dementia, mental illness, Huntington’s disease or something equally nasty lurking around the future’s bend.
“In all those cases, what we’re trying to do is basically, far before you really have problems, detect that you’re likely to have them and do something about them,” he said.
The Kavli Prize, he said, acknowledges “this will have a major medical and human impact in the world.”
Not bad for a kid from Lebanon, Merzenich acknowledged — but in a way, he said, that doesn’t make any difference.
The main advice he has for mid-valley youngsters who want to be where he is someday is just that, he said: “They can be there someday.”
“It’s in you,” he added. “Keep developing yourself. Energetically pursue your dreams. Everyone there has a chance to do something worthwhile.”