1998: Wassle


The Minerva Foundation 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.

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 pioneered 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 received the Golden Brain Award on Monday, November 9, at a private dinner in Los Angeles, where he attended 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."

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 measured the light responses of the different neurons. He analyzed the anatomy of the different sets of neurons, and he used molecular methods to understand how the cells in the retina receive and transmit information (signal flow).

His work on the retina has helped 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."