1998: Wassle

Professor Heinz Wassle
Director of Neuroanatomy
Max Planck Institute for Brain Research,
Frankfurt, Germany

November 4, 1998

Researcher Honored for Insights into How the Eye Sends Signals to the Brain

Berkeley, CA....The Minerva Foundation has named vision researcher Heinz Wassle the winner of its 1998 Golden Brain Award for discoveries that explain how the eye process and transmits visual information.

The Berkeley-based foundation presents the Golden Brain Award each year to a researcher who has made a fundamental contribution to our knowledge of vision and the brain.

Wassle, director of the Department of Neuroanatomy at the Max Planck Institue for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, has devoted his career to exploring the cellular anatomy and function of the eye.

He has pioneered in applying biochemical techniques to the study of the chemical composition and the interactions of cells in the retina. His research provides evidence that the retina (the light sensitive layer in the eye) contains different sets of neurons that process brightness, contrast, color, and movement simultaneously.

He will receive the Golden Brain Award, Monday, November 9, at a private dinner in Los Angeles, where he will be attending a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

The eye is often compared with a camera, Wassle said, but this comparison doesn't begin to explain the eye's extraordinary capacity: "We can detect a single particle of light in absolute darkness," he said. "We perceive light particles by the billions in bright sunlight. We see minute differences in contrast. We perceive a huge range of colors. We are alert to moving objects, and our visual acuity can resolve the finest detail. To function like the eye, a camera would have to be miraculous. It would contain many different films, all exposed at once: a high speed film, a low speed film, a fine grain film, a color negative film, a color positive film, a movement sensitive film, and so on."

How does the eye do its job?

The eye contains 10 to 15 different types of ganglion cells, which send their messages through the optic nerve to the visual centers of the brain. Within the retina, between the photoreceptors (the actual light sensors) and the ganglion cells, at least 10 types of bipolar cells provide parallel routes for the light signal. Other cells (including horizontal cells and some 30 different unipolar nerve cells) provide a complex network of feedforward and feedback loops for anticipating, measuring, and taking action-similar to feedforward and feedback loops in a microchip. Using microelectrodes, Wassle measures the light responses of the different neurons. He analyzes the anatomy of the different sets of neurons, and he uses molecular methods to understand how the cells in the retina receive and transmit information (signal flow).

His work on the retina also helps to explain how the brain functions. "During embryonic development, the retina forms as part of the brain," Wassle said. "Thus, the retina is a model system for brain function, which is much more complex. We study the eye and the retina as a window to look into the brain."

The Minerva Foundation is a private foundation established in 1984 to promote basic research in vision and the brain.

Past Golden Brain Award winners are William Newsome and Denis Baylor of Stanford University; Robert Wurtz of the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, MD; John Allman of the California Institute of Technology; Rudiger von der Heydt, Jeremy Nathans and Gian Poggio of The Johns Hopkins University; David Sparks of the University of Pennsylvania; Semir Zeki of University College, London; Robert Desimone of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); Antonio Damasio of the University of Iowa College of Medicine; Anne Treisman of Princeton University; and Claudio Galetti of the University of Bologna, Italy.

1998: Professor Heinz Wassle