2001 Balzan Prize for Cognitive Neurosciences
Jean-Pierre Changeux: a Profile – 09.11.2001
In explaining their selection of Jean-Pierre Changeux, the Prize Committee of the Balzan Foundation announced: “Professor Changeux’s broad and profound contribution ranges from fundamental molecular mechanisms of chemical communication in the nervous system to learning and consciousness. In addition to his outstanding experimental work, Professor Changeux has made a theoretical contribution on epigenesis of neuronal networks by selective stabilisation of developing synapses and on several aspects of cognition. Jean-Pierre Changeux has established a new direction for the study of cognitive functions by rooting them at the molecular level.”
With his studies of the way nerve cells function, Jean-Pierre Changeux is considered one of the fathers of modern neurobiology. He was born in Domont, France, in 1936. In the early 1960s, he was a student of Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod. He later became Professor at the Collège de France and the Institut Pasteur in Paris as well as a member of the Academy of Sciences and President of the National Committee for Bioethics in France.
He conducted fundamentally important studies on receptors to explain the mode of communication among neurons in the brain. In the 1960s, he laid the experimental basis for communication between distant reaction sites in a protein molecule. He studied the isolated receptors in the electric organs of electric rays and eels. Changeux and his research team were the first to succeed in identifying and isolating a protein receptor as a neurotransmitter – the nicotinic receptor of acetylcholine – and understanding its function. This was the first membrane receptor molecule to be isolated and characterised.
Subsequently, they showed that other nicotinic receptors in certain areas of the brain are necessary for the transmission of impulses among neurons, making them indispensable for higher brain functions like good memory, learning processes, emotions, reward mechanisms and consciousness. Published in 1983, L’homme neuronal soon became a classic in the field of the neurosciences.
Jean-Pierre Changeux and his research group were the first to develop the so-called concept of the “sickness of the receptor”, which has today achieved fundamental significance. Other research teams have taken up this concept and been able to show that schizophrenia is associated with the mutations of a particular molecular sub-unit and that Alzheimer’s disease is also connected to a deficit of nicotinic receptors.
At the same time, Changeux is considered a maître à penser and humanist of the 21st century for his extraordinary personality and his ability to forge links between the natural sciences and the humanities. His commitment to philosophy is highlighted in his conversations with the mathematician Alain Connes on the nature of mathematical objects in our brain, which were published in Matière à pensée (1989), and with the philosopher Paul Ricoeur (Balzan Prize 1999 for philosophy) on the relationship between mind and brain in La nature et la règle (1998).
Finally, his passion for art is displayed in Raison et plaisir (1994), in which he investigates the ‘cerebral’ origin of artistic creation and its enjoyment. A Baroque painting enthusiast, Changeux has also organised a number of exhibitions, including L’âme au corps: arts et sciences 1793-1993 (1994, Grand Palais, Paris).
Past winners of Balzan Prizes for Neurosciences
Since the 1990s – in keeping with increasing investments and research work in the so-called “Decade of the Brain” – the Balzan Foundation has also honoured advances in the area of neurosciences, thus directing its ongoing interest in topics of biology to this additional field of specialisation. In 1994, the Balzan Prize went to René Couteaux of France for his studies on the structure of nerve cells. Couteaux died in late 1999, yet his name shall live on in association with the discovery of relationships between nerve endings and muscle fibres.