Professor Karl Deisseroth has been awarded an honorary doctorate for his groundbreaking brain research. He is regarded as the founder of optogenetics, a technique that makes it possible to use light to activate specific brain cells. Deisseroth will receive his honorary doctorate as part of the 108th Dies Natalis of Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) on Monday 8 November, themed Health, Technology & Society.
Karl Deisseroth graduated from Harvard, obtained his PhD at Stanford where he also obtained his medical degree. At the same university, he is now Professor of Bioengineering and of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences. The honorary doctor is also a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Deisseroth is board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is still a practising psychiatrist specialising in affective disorders and autism spectrum diseases.
Most prominent neurobiologist
Honorary supervisor Chris de Zeeuw, professor of Neuroscience Erasmus MC and vice-director of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, considers Deisseroth to be the most prominent neurobiologist of the past ten years. This has everything to do with his key role in optogenetics, a field in which he is regarded as the founder. By inserting proteins into brain cells, this technique makes it possible to activate or inhibit certain brain cells very specifically. De Zeeuw: "There is now hardly any neuroscience lab in the world that does not use this technique; that shows how important his work is.
Optogenetics makes understanding the brain more accessible, because the functioning of specific brain cells and networks can be revealed. But just as important: in time, it may also be possible to treat serious brain diseases such as Parkinson's and ALS. "Classic drugs have serious side effects and are sometimes worse than the disease. This is because whole areas of the brain are activated instead of just the cells responsible for the disease state," says the honorary supervisor. With optogenetics, it is possible to stimulate brain cells in a more targeted way, both in terms of place and time. "It will still take years before these applications are actually used in the clinic, but the bridge pillars are already in place and the intermediate pieces are being laid now."
Currently, Deisseroth's lab itself focuses mainly on unravelling autism and mood disorders such as depression. His research has earned the scientist an impressive number of awards. Among others, he received the NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Award (2017), the Eisenberg Prize (2018), the Kyoto Prize (2018), and in 2020 the Heineken Prize for Medicine from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. In September, he won the prestigious Lasker Prize, which regularly indicates future Nobel Prize winners.
Thinking from a disease perspective
What makes Deisseroth even more of a special scientist is that he uses both molecular fundamental principles and disease pictures in setting up his research. That way, you can uncover truly relevant processes in a more focused way, says the honorary PhD candidate. "If you only start at the fundamental level, it is often like looking for a needle in a haystack. By starting with brain diseases, you not only gain insight into the working mechanism of the brain, but you also work on research with a major impact on society," he explains. "In addition, Deisseroth has a particularly warm personality and is always willing to share his findings with colleagues."
108th Dies Natalis
The honorary doctorate will be awarded on Monday 8 November 2021 during the 108th Dies Natalis of Erasmus University Rotterdam. The theme of the ceremony is Health Technology & Society.
Disclaimer: the photo in the header does not relate to Karl Deisseroth's specific research, but to brain research in general. Photographer: Berthold Steinhilber/laif - ANP