Brain cell and face perception research wins Eppendorf/Science Prize

Young neurobiologists honored

Washington, D.C. – Doris Tsao has been awarded the 2006 International Prize in Neurobiology by the journal Science and Eppendorf AG for her insights into how brains perceive individual faces. Her experiments in monkeys have shown that their brains have specific regions devoted to recognizing faces.

The Eppendorf and Science Prize in Neurobiology recognizes outstanding neurobiological research by a young scientist, as described in a 1,000-word essay based on research performed within the last three years. The grand prize winner receives $25,000 from Eppendorf, and the winner's essay will be published in the 06 October 2006 issue of the journal Science.

The winner and the two finalist essays will be published at Science Online ( The winner and the finalists will be recognized at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in October in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tsao's experiments in monkeys have shown that the brain has specific regions devoted to recognizing faces. She describes her investigation of these regions' so-called "face cells" in her prize-winning essay "A Dedicated Cortical System for Processing Faces in Macaque Monkeys." Tsao is a researcher at her own lab at the University of Bremen, Germany.

She identified three regions of the temporal lobe in the macaque brain where neurons respond more strongly to faces than any other objects. She then designed experiments using recordings from individual neurons to discover what it is about a face that these cells like. Surprisingly, most of the neurons responded to human, monkey and even highly simplified cartoon faces. She discovered that each face-recognizing neuron is "tuned" to respond to a set of facial characteristics, including overall facial shape and iris size. "Each cell acts as a set of face-specific rulers, measuring faces along multiple distinct dimensions," Tsao writes. "By combining the measurements of all these little rulers, it should be possible to reconstruct any face."

Born in Changzhou, China, Tsao grew up in College Park, Maryland. She studied biology and mathematics at the California Institute of Technology and, in 1996, earned a bachelor's degree. She joined Margaret Livingstone's lab at Harvard Medical School where she studied binocular depth perception. She became interested in using fMRI in monkeys to chart unexplored regions of the brain. Tsao worked with Roger Tootell to image macaque brain regions involved in depth and face perception. In 2002, she earned her Ph.D. degree and continued this work in Livingstone's laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow. In 2004, Tsao received a Sofia Kovalevskaya Award from the Humboldt Foundation that allowed her to establish her own lab at the University of Bremen, Germany. Tsao's goal is to understand how a sheet of cells two millimeters thick can construct a three-dimensional world and effortlessly recognize the multitude of objects within it. She uses a combination of electrophysiology, imaging, psychophysics and anatomical techniques.

The Finalists

The two finalists who are being recognized are the following:

  • Bernardo Sabatini, for his essay "Establishing Synaptic Independence: How Neurons Create Diffusional Barriers." In 1991, he earned his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering from Harvard College. In 1999, he completed his thesis work in the lab of Wade Regehr and earned his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard Medical School. He began his postdoctoral work in the lab of Karel Svoboda at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. In 2001, he started his own lab in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and focused on understanding the processes that regulate the structure and function of synapses and how these processes are perturbed in neurological diseases.

  • Gábor Tamás, for his essay "Lighting the Fire in Cortical Microcircuits: Exciting Role for Chandelier Cells." Tamás completed undergraduate studies in biology at the University of Szeged, Hungary. As a graduate student, he trained in neuroanatomy and physiology in the lab of Peter Somogyi at the University of Oxford and he investigated the function, number and location of synapses between neocortical neurons. In 1998, Tamás returned to Szeged and established his own lab where he identified the first intercellular mechanism capable of synchronizing cortical neurons at gamma frequency. His group discovered that the so-called neurogliaform interneuron is capable of eliciting slow, GABAB receptor–mediated inhibition in the cerebral cortex.


For the full text of essays by the finalists and for information about applying for next year's awards, see Science Online at Web site:

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal Science ( AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, reaching 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The nonprofit AAAS ( is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!,, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

Eppendorf AG, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany, is a leading global supplier of systems and research tools for the biotechnology industry. With more than 1,700 employees worldwide, Eppendorf AG achieved sales revenues of more than 320 million Euros in 2005, with earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) of approx. 50 million Euros.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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