Past winners include six scientists who went on to win the Nobel Prize.

The UNC School of Medicine has awarded the 18th Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize to Winrich Freiwald, PhD, of The Rockefeller University and Doris Y. Tsao, PhD, of the California Institute of Technology for the discovery of brain mechanisms of face recognition.

Doris Tsao, PhD & Winrich Freiwald, PhD

Freiwald and Tsao will visit Chapel Hill on April 12 to receive the prize – a $20,000 award – and give a lecture on their work at 3 p.m. in room G202 in the Medical Biomolecular Research Building (MBRB).

“I knew Doris when she was a graduate student at Harvard and could tell she was a rising star,” said Mark Zylka, PhD, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center and chair of the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize committee. “In the ensuing years, Drs. Tsao and Freiwald have each made major contributions to our understanding of how the brain recognizes human faces.”

Freiwald is associate professor at The Rockefeller University, where he heads the Laboratory of Neural Systems. Tsao is professor of biology, the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Center for Systems Neuroscience Leadership Chair and Director of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Center for Systems Neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). She is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

It has long been known that human patients suffering certain types of strokes are unable to recognize faces. However precisely how the brain recognizes faces was unclear. Working first collaboratively and more recently independently, Tsao and Freiwald tackled this complex problem. Using fMRI methods and electrical recordings they demonstrated the existence of “face patches” in the brains of monkeys. Remarkably, almost all of the neurons in these regions respond only when animals are shown faces. Tsao has gone on to discover how brain cells encode visual features, and Freiwald has discovered how these cells connect to other brain centers involved in familiarity and social recognition. Altogether, their work provides unique insights into higher-level visual representation that has particular relevance to behavior.

“I feel incredibly honored and humbled to receive this prize,” Tsao said. “For an organ touted to be the most complex machine in the universe, the notion of cortical patches dedicated to processing faces seems almost ridiculously simplistic. Yet it’s true, and it has been such an incredible experimental boon in many unexpected ways. It’s also a beautiful example of the value of studying the brain across different organisms. Nancy Kanwisher’s discovery of the human fusiform face area was pivotal to our finding.”

Freiwald said, “The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize has been awarded to the most amazing scientists of our day, some my personal scientific heroes. Receiving this tremendous honor now myself, I am humbled. I am also deeply grateful. I am thankful to the pioneers of my field, to the students and postdocs I have had and have the pleasure of working with, to my postdoctoral mentors – Nancy Kanwisher and Margaret Livingstone – and, most of all, to Doris.”

Freiwald earned his PhD at the University of Tübingen and conducted postdoctoral work at MIT, the Hanse Institute for Advanced Study, and Harvard Medical School. He was the head of the Primate Brain Imaging Group at Bremen University before joining Rockefeller as assistant professor in 2009.

Tsao studied biology and math as an undergraduate at Caltech before beginning her doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School. At Harvard in 2003, she and Freiwald (who was a postdoc at the time) worked together to identify face-selective patches in monkeys using fMRI. In 2004, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation awarded Tsao funds to start a lab in Germany, and in 2006 she moved to the University of Bremen, where Freiwald was already working. She joined the Caltech faculty as an assistant professor in biology in 2009.

The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize is 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 sensory neurons responded to all stimuli and that 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.

Dr. Perl passed away in 2014. Read more about his research in this remembrance.

Along with Mark Zylka, the Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize selection committee consists of William Snider, MD, professor of neurology and founding director of the UNC Neuroscience Center; Ben Philpot, PhD, professor of cell biology and physiology and associate director of the UNC Neuroscience Center; Thomas Albright, PhD, Conrad T. Prebys Chair in Vision Research at the Salk Institute; Vanessa Ruta, PhD, the Gabriel H. Reem & Herbert J. Kayden Assistant Professor of Neurophysiology & Behavior at Rockefeller University; Julie Kauer, professor of neurosciences & medical sciences at Brown University; and Regina Carelli, the Stephen B. Baxter Distinguished Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina.