January 24, 2018

The Nobel Prize and the Brain

This week, Nobel laureates from around the world gather in Sweden to receive their awards. During the week known as Nobel Week, winners will attend dinners, ceremonies, and concerts in their honor. They will meet Swedish royalty, deliver lectures to be broadcast across the globe, and receive their Nobel medals and diplomas as VIP guests of the Swedish government. Swept up in the excitement are Michael Rosbash and Jeff Hall, biologists from the Brandeis community.

Rosbash, currently a professor in Brandeis’ biology department, and Hall, a professor emeritus of biology, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Michael Young of Rockefeller University. While winning the most prestigious prize in the world and the various perks that come with it (such as a personal attaché, first-class trip to Sweden, and intellectual celebrity status) is exciting, it is far from the main reason for Rosbash and Hall’s work. Their discovery of the fundamental workings of the circadian rhythm have far reaching implications, especially in the medical world. The circadian rhythm, also known as the body clock, has connections to many bodily functions including sleep cycles, hormone balances, enzyme production, body temperature, and metabolism. This internal clock is also connected to several neurodegenerative diseases. Studies have linked chronic sleep disorders with higher levels of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s, while Parkinson’s is often marked by sleep disorders. Three quarters of patients with Parkinson’s disease have a sleep disorder and disordered sleeping may be an early indicator of the disease. It is necessary to understand the body’s underlying workings in order to develop targeted treatments. Foundational research like Rosbash and Hall’s is critical for advancing medical knowledge.

As the scientific and medical communities, and the world acknowledge the significance of Rosbash and Hall’s discovery, the two biologists recognize Brandeis University’s role in their research as a whole. Not only was Brandeis the place they met, but its collaborative, intellectual environment and financial support allowed them to perform critical research. In a time when pharmaceutical companies rely heavily on research coming out of universities; government funding for scientific research is more competitive than ever; and research in flashier, more profitable areas is more attractive; Brandeis provides a haven for an exploratory approach to the base questions, without which we can never full answer the bigger questions. Brandeis University’s attention to foundational research and specialization in neuroscience fosters an environment of research and discovery for both faculty and students. Cognizant of the costs of research, the University provides financial support in the form of grants, fellowships, and scholarships, allowing minds like Roshash and Hall’s to stretch and push the limits of conventional science.

We must also recognize the role the Brandeis National Committee plays in Brandeis’ science. Through funding campaigns, and general support for the libraries and scientific journals, BNC members ensure Brandeis scientists have access to the resources and stability necessary to perform quality work. The Sustaining the Mind Fund for research in neuroscience and neurodegenerative diseases and scholarships in science specifically targets the needs of Brandeis’ science departments. Without the generous support of BNC members research into these diseases and progress towards their treatment and cure would be significantly slowed, and the future less secure. So in addition to congratulating Michael Rosbash and Jeffrey Hall on their Nobel Prize, the Brandeis community and the Brandeis National Committee would like to recognize the role our members play and extend our thanks for your support in this meaningful discovery.

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