Sight Specific

Scientists honored for revealing how our eyes send signals to the brain


John Flanagan. Image: John Soares
John Flanagan. Image: John Soares

John Flanagan, professor of cell biology at HMS, has been named, with three others, as a recipient of the 2016 António Champalimaud Vision Award for work that has illuminated our understanding of the way in which our eyes send signals to the appropriate areas of the brain. Developed by Flanagan, Christine Holt of the University of Cambridge, Carol Mason of Columbia University and Carla Shatz of Stanford University, this work may offer hope of fighting vision disorders by means of neurological therapies.

In order for us to see, specific sites in our brains must receive signals from specific cells in our eyes. Neuronal projections from these retinal cells must make navigational decisions on their way to targeted destinations in the brain, as these are essential to forming an accurate map of the visual world. Our vision is critically dependent upon these synaptic connections between the retina and corresponding sites in the higher visual centers of the brain.

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When retinal projections are not formed correctly, vision formed in the brain becomes abnormal and our ability to see is greatly impaired. The link that the 2016 António Champalimaud Vision Award winners have established between the eyes and the brain opens up the potential to cure certain vision disorders via neurological treatments. Therapies targeting the brain and its capacity to accurately receive projections from the retina may therefore hold the key to unlocking new types of treatment and to bringing sight to those unable to see as a result of poorly established synaptic connections.

Much of what we currently know about the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in establishing and sculpting the patterns of retinal projections comes from the individual and collective efforts of Flanagan, Holt, Mason and Shatz. Their work has shone light on the connection between the two fundamental organs responsible for vision—the eye and the brain—and their groundbreaking work has greatly advanced our understanding of the visual system.

The António Champalimaud Vision Award, worth 1 million euros, is the largest in the world in the area of vision. The 2016 awards ceremony was presided over by the president of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.