'Nobel' prize of neuroscience awarded to three British researchers


Three British researchers have received one of the world's most coveted science prizes for work that uncovered the foundation of memory.

Professors Tim Bliss, Graham Collingridge and Richard Morris were awarded the Brain Prize, regarded as the "Nobel" of neuroscience and worth one million euro (£780,300).

It is the first time Britain has monopolised the prize, with all a single year's recipients coming from the UK.

Each member of the trio made ground-breaking advances shedding light on the way nerve connections, or synapses, in the hippocampus - a brain region vital to memory - are strengthened by repeated stimulation.

The process, called long-term potentiation (LTP), persists throughout life and forms the basis of our ability to learn and remember.

It also underpins the brain's inherent "plasticity" - its ability to re-organise itself in response to experience.

LTP is thought to be involved in many brain conditions, including autism, schizophrenia, depression, chronic pain, epilepsy and dementia.

Leading neurologist Sir Colin Blakemore, who chaired the Brain Prize selection committee, said: "Memory is at the heart of human experience.

"This year's winners, through their ground-breaking research, have transformed our understanding of memory and learning, and the devastating effects of failing memory."

Prof Bliss, from the Francis Crick Institute in London, co-led the team that came up with the first detailed description of LTP as long ago as 1973.

Since then he has spent decades unravelling the cellular mechanisms behind the phenomenon.

He said: "I am, of course, delighted to be awarded a share of this prestigious prize. Research into LTP has been a wonderfully stimulating field to work in. From the beginning, it has held up the promise of explaining the neural basis of memory."

Techniques used to identify several of the key molecules involved in LTP were developed by Prof Collingridge, from the University of Bristol. In particular, he highlighted the role played by the NMDA receptor, a protein important for nerve cell communication.

Looking ahead to some of the potential applications of the research, he said: "I am really excited about now translating discoveries about LTP into new treatments for dementia."

Professor Morris, from the University of Edinburgh, showed in 1986 that LTP was necessary for rats and mice to learn how to navigate a new environment. Using drugs that acted on the NMDA receptor, he began a long programme of research to establish the role of LTP in memory.

He said: "While much of the work we have done on LTP has been driven by our curiosity about how the brain stores memories, it is inevitable that knowledge of basic mechanisms will lead to approaches for alleviating the pathologies of memory that are becoming increasingly prominent in our ageing society."

The prize, shared between the scientists, is awarded each year by the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation in Denmark.

It was presented by HRH Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark at a ceremony in Copenhagen.

At a news briefing in London, Prof Bliss uncorked a bottle of champagne and drank a celebratory toast to scientific achievement with his colleagues.

He said he first heard about the prize in "one of those emails" bearing the enigmatic message: "Are you going to be at home tomorrow? I suggest that you are. I can't say anything more at the moment."

"I suspected something was up," he added.

Prof Morris was at a conference in Hawaii when he received three successive phone calls at around 4am, only answering the third one.

Prof Collingridge was working in Vancouver, Canada, when he was alerted by an email.

"This has all come as a complete shock," he said.

The three are still undecided about what they will do with the prize money, which will be split equally giving each of them more than £250,000.

Prof Morris said he was considering giving some of the money to charity and donating part of the prize to staff at his lab and members of his family.