1991: Wurtz

Dr. Robert H. Wurtz
Chief, Sensorimotor Research Laboratory
National Eye Institute, Bethesda

November 29, 1991

Vision Research Pioneer Wins 1991 Golden Brain Award

Berkeley, Calif. -- The Minerva Foundation has awarded Dr. Robert H. Wurtz, chief of the Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research at the National Eye Institute (NEI) in Washington, D.C., its 1991 Golden Brain Award for seminal research that has revealed how the brain processes visual information and controls eye movement.

Wurtz is the seventh recipient of the Golden Brain Award, presented annually by the Berkeley-based Minerva Foundation for exceptional basic research on vision and the brain.

His latest research suggests that certain "very smart neurons" in the brain guide us in moving through the environment, helping us especially with depth perception.

"When you walk down the hall, you don't consciously notice the visual information you get--what we call the optic flow--but many different brain cells are processing this information in such a way as to keep you from bumping into the wall," explains Wurtz.

Wurtz will be honored at a dinner on Friday, December 6, following a lecture he will give on "Moving in 3-D Space: Motion Processing in Primate Cerebral Cortex" at the University of California, Berkeley. The lecture, scheduled for 4 p.m. in 2 Le Conte Hall, will examine how neurons in the cerebral cortex are organized to respond to optic flow stimuli. The Minerva Foundation and Berkeley's School of Optometry are co-sponsoring the lecture.

Announcing Wurtz's selection, Minerva Foundation Executive Officer Elwin Marg said, "Robert Wurtz, a pioneer in neurophysiology, has made an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of how the brain works at the level of the single cell."

Wurtz and his collaborators were the first to identify parts of the brain that control certain eye movements. His current research is the first to describe the relationship of binocular disparity (close v. far vision) to optic flow stimulation.

Wurtz studies the organization of the visual and oculomotor system in monkeys as a means of inferring how the human brain perceives motion and controls eye movements. Visual perception and eye movement in monkeys and humans are virtually identical.

While his primary goal is to understand how the brain is organized to produce behavior, Wurtz says his research can have shorter-term practical results: "By understanding how the circuits in the brain function, we hope to be able to suggest where deficits might be and possibilities for treating diseases and disorders, such as stroke."

A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the past president of the Society for Neuroscience, Wurtz earned a bachelor's degree from Oberlin College in 1958 and a doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1962. From 1962 to 1965 he was a research fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. He worked at the National Institute of Mental Health before joining the NEI in 1978.

Other past recipients of the Golden Brain Award are Professors John Allman of the California Institute of Technology, Denis Baylor of Stanford University, Jeremy Nathans and Gian Poggio of The Johns Hopkins University, David Sparks of the University of Pennsylvania, and Semir Zeki of University College, London.

1991: Dr. Robert H. Wurtz