Martinos Collaborators and Alum Receive 2024 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience

Martinos News

Congratulations to Nancy Kanwisher, PhD, Winrich Freiwald, PhD, and Doris Ying Tsao, PhD, on their receipt of the 2024 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience! Established in 2008 by Norwegian-American entrepreneur and philanthropist Fred Kavli, Kavli Prizes recognize innovative research in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience: “the largest, the smallest, and the most complex” of the sciences, Mr. Kavli once said.

This year’s neuroscience prize recognizes Drs. Kaniwsher, Freiwald and Tsao’s discovery of a highly localized and specialized system for representation of faces in human and non-human primate neocortex: pioneering work with roots in research the three conducted at the Martinos Center in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Dr. Kanwisher has spent the past several decades exploring the relationships between aspects of human cognition and particular regions of the brain, often using functional MRI (fMRI), a technology introduced by the Martinos Center researchers in the early 1990s. In 1997, the same year she joined the faculty of MIT, she published a seminal study pinpointing the region in the brain responsible for identifying faces. In the 25+ years since, she has elaborated upon and extended this groundbreaking discovery, pinpointing areas of the brain that light up in response to places, bodies, sentence meaning, music and more. Today she is the Walter A. Rosenblith professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT. (In the late 1990s, before MIT acquired an MRI scanner of its own, she did much of her scanning at the Martinos Center, then called the MGH-NMR Center.)

In the early 2000s, Drs. Tsao and Freiwald expanded upon Dr. Kanwisher’s initial findings by using fMRI to discern face-selective patches in the brains of macaque monkeys and determine the interconnectedness and functional specialization of these patches. They achieved this while working with Martinos researchers to build a program using fMRI to study the brains of awake non-human primates.

“Doris was one of the drivers of that effort from the start,” says the Martinos Center’s Joe Mandeville, PhD, who collaborated with Dr. Tsao during this period. Dr. Freiwald was also “fully involved” in the effort, says Roger Tootell, PhD, a Martinos researcher who pioneered the use of fMRI to study the brain’s visual system in the mid-1990s.

Drs. Tsao and Freiwald published several highly impactful studies with Drs. Tootell and Mandeville that are relevant to the work recognized by the Kavli Prize. These studies include “A Cortical Region Consisting Entirely of Face-Selective Cells” (2006) and “Faces and objects in macaque cerebral cortex” (2003). The image above is sourced from the latter.

Dr. Tsao is currently a professor in the neurobiology division of the department of molecular & cell biology and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. She continues to focus on the neural circuitry of the brain’s visual system. Dr. Freiwald is the Denise A. and Eugene W. Chinery professor of neurosciences and behavior at The Rockefeller University. In his work, he continues to explore the neural mechanisms underlying a range of cognitive functions.