2009 Balzan Prize for Cognitive Neurosciences
Acceptance Speech – Bern, 20.11.2009
Madam President of the National Council,
Madam Vice-President of the Federal Council,
Members of the Balzan Foundation, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I feel immensely honoured, but also astonished, to find myself the recipient of the 2009 Balzan Prize in cognitive neurosciences, and I welcome this opportunity to express my gratitude to the Foundation for this extraordinary gift. I am also delighted to see the field of cognitive neurosciences recognized in this way. This is a discipline that has come of age during the past 50 years, and that now, led by advancing technology, opens up even more exciting perspectives for the future.
I owe my introduction to this field to Oliver Zangwill, my supervisor at Cambridge in the late 1930s. It was Zangwill who first taught me how much one could learn about functional representation in the normal brain by studying people with brain injuries, and who thus aroused my enduring interest in exploring the neural bases of behaviour. This interest was reinforced in Montreal, some 10 years later, by the recruitment of Donald Hebb to the McGill psychology department, with his influential book, The Organization of Behaviour: A Neuropsychological Theory still in manuscript. I attended Hebb’s first seminar and enrolled as his PhD student.
I am deeply grateful to Hebb, not only for his stimulating ideas, but also for enabling me to study Wilder Penfield’s neurosurgical patients at the Montreal Neurological Institute, where I gradually built up a research group in neuropsychology (now termed cognitive neurosciences), and where I still work.
But research involves teamwork and I am greatly indebted to my neurosurgical colleagues, as well as to generations of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, who have contributed so much to our common enterprise. I also wish to thank the many patients whom I have had the privilege to study. And here I must single out for particular recognition the late Henry Molaison (known in the literature as HM), who developed a profound memory impairment after a bilateral operation on the medial temporal lobes carried out by Dr. William Scoville to control epileptic seizures. The study of HM provided early evidence for the existence of more than one memory system in the brain.
Lastly, and to return to the present occasion, I wish to thank the Balzan Foundation for the challenge they have set me in dedicating half of this prize to new research, preferably involving young scientists. Not many people at this late stage in their careers are given such an opportunity to engage with the future, and I am grateful for it. In the coming months, with selected young colleagues, I plan to explore further the ways in which the left and right hemispheres of the human brain interact in response to varying cognitive demands or to brain disease. This is still a relatively uncharted field.