CHAPEL HILL, NC – The UNC School of Medicine has awarded the 16th Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize to Christopher A. Walsh, MD, PhD, Chief of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Bullard Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology at Harvard Medical School, for the “discovery of genes and mechanisms regulating human cortical development.”
Walsh will visit Chapel Hill April 8 to receive the prize – a $20,000 cash award – and give a lecture on his work at 3 p.m. in room G202 in the Medical Biomolecular Research Building (MBRB), with a reception to follow.
“Dr. Walsh’s study of genetic mutations and gene functions associated with abnormal brain development has provided invaluable new insights into how the human cerebral cortex develops,” said William Snider, MD, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center and chair of the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize selection committee. “Further, his work provides a foundation for improved diagnosis and treatment of several pediatric brain diseases including autism. We are extremely pleased to welcome him as our 16th recipient of this prize honoring the late Dr. Edward Perl, a pioneering researcher at UNC for many years.”
Walsh, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and collaborators have defined the genetic mechanisms of developmental abnormalities of the human brain, including conditions where cortical neurons fail to migrate and form the normal cortical layers. Recently Walsh and collaborators have identified mutations in more than 10 genes that cause a condition called microcephaly (small brain), which is a major cause of intellectual disabilities. Some of the genes control the mechanisms of cell division; others control the structure of chromatin – how DNA is packaged inside cells and how gene expression is regulated. Also, Walsh and collaborators found that many of these genes control cell fate – whether cells become neurons or continue to divide as progenitor cells or stem cells. This plays a direct role in the size of the brain.
Walsh’s lab is also attempting to define the genetic mutations involved in high risk of autism. Because the disorder has an inherited genetic component and likely involves hundreds of different genes depending on the patient, Walsh’s team is collaborating with physicians in the Middle East, where parents more commonly share ancestry. Through this work, Walsh’s lab has identified inherited mutations involved in high autism risk. (Read more about his work.)
“It is a tremendous honor to join the ranks of the great scientists who have been recognized by the Perl Prize,” Walsh said. “Genetics is a very social pursuit, and in my case I share this honor with colleagues past and present who have collaborated on the work, as well as with patients and families who have taken part in our studies.”
The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize is becoming increasingly well known among biomedical scientists. Six of its previous winners went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine or the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Two other Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize recipients went on to win the Kavli Prize, which to neuroscientists has become nearly as prestigious as the Nobel.
The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize, established in 2000, is named after former UNC professor Edward Perl, MD, who discovered that a specific type of sensory neuron responded to painful stimuli. Before this, scientists thought that neurons responded to all stimuli and then the pain responses were sorted out in the spinal cord. The discovery had a major impact on the field of pain research, particularly in the development of pain medications.
Along with William Snider,MD, the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize selection committee consists of Tom Jessell, HHMI investigator and the Claire Tow Professor in the Department of Neuroscience and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University; Huda Akil, PhD, MBNI Distinguished University Professor and Quarton Professor of Neurosciences at the University of Michigan and co-director of the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute; Joe Gleeson, MD, HHMI investigator and professor and head of the Laboratory of Pediatric Brain Disease at the Rockefeller University; Rachel Wong, PhD, professor of Biological Structure at the University of Washington; and Mark Zylka, PhD, associate professor, and Ben Philpot, PhD, professor, both in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology in the UNC School of Medicine and members of the UNC Neuroscience Center.