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Joseph Altman, Arturo Álvarez-Buylla and Giacomo Rizzolatti

Prince of Asturias Award for Technical & Scientific Research 2011

These three scientists are considered worldwide leaders in neurology for having provided solid proof of the regeneration of neurons in adult brains (neurogenesis) and for the discovery of what are known as mirror neurons.

Joseph Altman

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Joseph Altman (1925 - 2016)  commenced his research work in 1961 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to then move to the University of Purdue (Indiana) in 1968. As an independent investigator at MIT, he discovered adult neurogenesis. This discovery –made by Altman in the 1960’s– was largely ignored by the scientific community until the veracity of his theory was demonstrated in the 1990’s. Using the technique of 3H-thymidine autoradiography to mark dividing cells, his research work confirmed the existence of neurogenesis in some areas of the postnatal and adult brains of rats, especially in the olfactory bulb and the dentate gyrus. He likewise suggested that these new neurons play a crucial role in the processes of memory and learning. It has been shown in several species that new neurons continue to be generated during the postnatal stage and throughout life, especially in the subventricular zones (SVZ) and the subgranular zone of the dentated gyrus (DG) of the hippocampus.

Joseph Altman has published numerous essays and is the author of books such as Atlas of Prenatal Rat Brain Development (1994), Development of the Cerebellar System (1996) and Development of the Human Spinal Cord (2001), among others.

Arturo Álvarez-Buylla

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Arturo Álvarez-Buylla (Mexico DF, Mexico, 1958 - ) obtained his degree in Biomedical Research from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1983 and a PhD from the Rockefeller University in 1988, where he lectured from 1989 to 2000. He is currently a researcher and Professor of Anatomy and Neurosurgery at the University of California, San Francisco. His main fields of work are the neurogenesis of the adult mammalian brain, the assembly of the brain, brain tumours and their repair, and the ontogeny and phylogeny of behaviour. He discovered that a subpopulation of glial cells function as primary progenitors of new neurons incorporated in the olfactory bulb. Using immunocytochemical methods and optical and electronic microscopy, he discovered the subventricular zone in this system that is the origin of the neurogenesis of adult olfactory cells and the chain migration of these cells towards the olfactory bulb, following a specific pathway named the rostral migratory stream.

Member of an exiled Spanish Republican family, his father, Ramón Álvarez-Buylla, was also a prominent scientist, while his grandfathers, Arturo Álvarez-Buylla Godino and Wenceslao Roces, were respectively a pioneer of Spanish aviation and senator for Asturias.

A corresponding foreign member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences, he is also a member of the Society for Neurosciences (USA), the International Brain Research Organization, the Biochemical Society (USA), the Academia de Ciencias de America Latina, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (USA) and the American Society for Cell Biology. The honours and awards he has received include the Gabino Barreda Medal from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (1983), the Robert L. Sinsheimer Award (USA, 1992), the Jacob Javits Award (USA, 2000), the IPSEN Foundation Prize (France, 2002) and the Association for Chemoreception Sciences Award (USA, 2004).

Giacomo Rizzolatti

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Giacomo Rizzolatti (Kiev, Ukraine, 1937 - ) obtained his degree in Medicine and Surgery from the University of Padua, specialising in Neurology. He subsequently spent three years at the University of Pisa Institute of Physiology, directed at that time by Professor Giuseppe Moruzzi. His academic career continued at the University of Parma, where is currently Professor of Physiology in the Department of Neurosciences at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery. Since the early 1990’s, he has collaborated closely with the Department of Computer Science and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles and with the Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Centre at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

The focus of his early research work lay in the fields of the physiology of dreaming and sight. In particular, he studied the functional organisation of the superior colliculus and of the corpus callosum of the brain. He subsequently studied the motor system and its role in perception, as well as attention and the relations between attention and the motor system. While studying the relation between the motor system and cognitive functions in the early 1990’s, Rizzolatti discovered a type of neuron in monkey brains that was activated not only when the individual performed a particular action, but also when an individual observed a peer carrying out the same action. Called mirror neurons, this finding led a revolution in our understanding of the way in which individuals interact with others. Subsequent research showed the role of these neurons in human beings and their diverse implications in sensory capacities and in the development of language and communication. Mirror neurons enable imitation and empathy to be explained. Likewise, a deficit of mirror neurons may be responsible for several important symptoms of autism: social, motor and language-related problems. These neurons provide a suitable framework for the understanding of the mechanisms underlying emotional empathy, imitation, communication and social behaviour.

Holder of honorary doctorates from the Claude Bernard University of Lyon, the University of St. Petersburg and the Catholic University of Louvain, he has been the president of the European Brain and Behaviour Society and the Italian Society of Neuroscience. For several years, he headed the European Training Programme in Brain and Behaviour Research. He is a member of the Academia Europaea, of the Accademia dei Lincei and an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among other honours and awards, he has received the George Miller Award from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (USA, 1999), the Feltrinelli Prize for Medicine (Italy, 2000), the Grawemeyer Prize for Psychology (USA, 2007) and the IPSEN Foundation Prize in Neuroplasticity (France, 2007).

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