MCB Professor Takao K. Hensch, who researches brain development with Harvard’s Center for Brain Science and Children’s Hospital Boston, has won the biannual Mortimer D. Sackler, M.D. Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Developmental Psychobiology. The prize is jointly awarded by the developmental psychobiology departments at Columbia University and Weill Cornell Medical College.
“We are proud that Takao’s discoveries have been recognized by the Sackler Prize,” said Professor Alex Schier, chair of the MCB department. “Takao has not only been a leader in understanding how experience shapes brain circuits, but as the Director of the Conte Center he has also raised awareness of basic mental health research and helped reduce the stigma associated with mental health disorders.”
The prize is awarded to researchers like Hensch who have contributed to the scientific understanding of brain development, particularly in areas affecting normal brain development and the etiology of mental illnesses. The prize committee was impressed by Hensch’s interdisciplinary work between neuroscience and cell biology, and the award will allow him to continue his interdisciplinary and international research.
Hensch’s research on early sensory experiences during brain development combines molecular biology, cellular biology, and neurology to shed light on the role of inhibitory circuits in early development. He intends to enlist the input of developmental linguists from the University of British Columbia and genomic analyses help from Riken, his former research institute in Japan.
“Our work has identified the biological basis for such windows of brain plasticity,” Hensch said. “Specifically, by showing there are specific ‘triggers’ and ‘brakes’ opening and closing these critical periods, we can better predict when certain brain functions are most sensitive to deprivation or stimulation [during development].”
“We might also understand neurodevelopmental disorders as mistiming errors,” he continued. “In fact, some of our most exciting ongoing work is to leverage our insights to correct derailed trajectories in autism spectrum disorders or recovery from brain injury in adulthood.”
The Sackler prize comes with a monetary award and seeks to encourage international cooperation in science. The award is also intended to increase public awareness of research on mental illness.
“The prize money will help us in two ways,” Hensch said. “First, we can explore new critical periods for more complex brain functions beyond primary sensory areas, where the discoveries were initially made. Second, the Sackler network will connect us with scientists studying human cohorts, who can help us examine developmental timing in people. By meeting in the middle, we hope to bridge the ‘gene-to-cognition’ gap.”