The Prince of Asturias awards aim to encourage and promote “scientific, cultural and humanistic values that form part of mankind’s universal heritage”. They are awarded annually by the heir to the Spanish throne.
Arturo Alvarez Buylla, who is a Faculty Member of the ‘Neurobiology of disease and regeneration’ section, received the 2011 Technical and Scientific Research award along with Joseph Altman and Giacomo Rizzolatto, worldwide leaders in neurology, for providing solid proof of neurogenesis, i.e. the regeneration of neurons in adult brains, and for the discovery of mirror neurons. Their research has opened up promising pathways for new-generation treatments with which to fight neurodegenerative and brain-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism.
When we look into the lens of a microscope and see nerve cells –neurons– shining like illuminated signs, it is impossible not to be in awe of their complexity, diversity and extraordinary beauty … The true beauty of the nervous system lies in the content of its cell assemblies, in its neuronal circuits and in what these are capable of achieving; for instance: memory, behaviour, perception, imagination, emotion.
Alvarez-Buylla believes that an important factor that motivates him in his work is the defining of new strategies to repair the nervous system. He goes on to explain,
New neurons are thought to be synonymous with curing neurodegenerative diseases. However, this is not as straightforward as it sounds. To begin with, there are many different types of nerve cell and only a few of these are produced in adults. In neurodegenerative disorders, the neurons that die often correspond to the basis of cerebral assemblage, which makes their replacement difficult or even impossible. In addition, the purpose of natural (endogenous) mechanisms of neurogenesis in adults does not appear to be that of repairing the brain, but rather of restoring its plasticity, of providing a certain degree of flexibility that enables circuits to adapt to the changing environment. In fact, many neuronal elements are formed in embryonic and foetal stages and, surprisingly, last all our lives, toiling away ceaselessly. Despite all these limitations, the process of neuronal replacement is possible for certain types of neuron, a fact that encourages us to continue exploring cell mechanisms for neuronal repair.