Award Ceremony Speech for the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, 2036. Presentation Speech by Professor Rosa Newman, Member of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, Member of the Nobel Committee:
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Honoured Nobel Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The philosopher Plotinus was reluctant to have his portrait made. Why use a picture, he asked, when even his own body was merely an imperfect image of himself?
What is the most perfect image of a human, then? It cannot be the raw physical material that comprises our bodies, since not a single atom in our bodies from 30 years ago remains with us today. It can't be our DNA, since no-one would suggest that identical twins were truly identical in all regards; and of course these days we can change our DNA at will.
No, more than anything else, humans are the sum of our experiences.
Think of the keen taste of a ripe summer fruit, or the bitter disappointment of being bested by a fierce rival, or the heady, burning sensation of a new love that transforms into the warmth of contentment over years and decades. We string these experiences — these memories — together to form the story of our lives, and in doing so, we create and edit the narrative of our very personalities minute by minute, day by day, year by year.
Until recently, we have known little about these memories that are so central to our existence. Where and how are they stored in our brains? Why are some memories stronger than others? How is it that memories shift and warp over time?
Early neuroscientists from the 1990s to the late teens thought that memories were formed by neurons 'firing' in coincident patterns, resulting in the strengthening of connections between neurons at the synapses. This was partly true, but in the 20s, two researchers, Zizhen Liu and Alex Ernst, took our understanding much, much further. They discovered the fundamental nature of memory on a cellular, information theoretical, and systems level, and explained how those levels interacted.
Zizhen Liu from Beijing in China pioneered a revolutionary technique to monitor and control the activity of massive networks of cells in genetically modified rats through a combination of magnetoencephalography, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and laser stimulation. In doing so, she discovered how information and control cascades through the brain.
Alex Ernst from the Netherlands created simulations of the rat brain in unprecedented detail based on Liu's results. They entered into a close collaboration that saw Ernst's simulations linked to Liu's equipment to generate and prove hypotheses about memory formation and extinction. In short, Liu and Ernst didn't simply understand how the brain worked — they created a hardware and software interface to control the brain.
The pair's advances have led to important new medical insights and applications in many fields. We are already beginning to see therapeutic treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, and alleviating age-related memory loss in post-centenarians. Their research has also been instrumental in new techniques to read, remove, alter, and create new memories with high precision. It is, quite literally, the stuff of dreams.
In 1962, we awarded Watson, Wilkins, and Crick the Nobel Prize for discovering the nature of one of the most fundamental patterns in our world, that of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the genetic code that governs the growth of our bodies. Today, we are here to recognise the discovery of an equally important, equally elusive, and tremendously complex pattern — the pattern that constitutes our very thoughts and memories.
Professors Liu and Ernst, on behalf of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, it is my great privilege to convey to you our warmest congratulations and our deepest admiration. I now ask you to step forward to receive your Nobel Prizes from the hands of His Majesty the King.