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Beckman Foundation Names Mark Bear, Ph.D., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as 2018 Beckman-Argyros Vision Research Award Winner

Newly Funded Research Supports Recovery from Amblyopia

Mark Bear 2018 Beckman-Argyros Awardee

The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation today announced its 2018 Beckman-Argyros Vision Research Award winner is Dr. Mark Bear, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Presented annually, the award recognizes an individual who has made and is continuing to make significant, transformative breakthroughs in vision research; particularly through the development of an innovative technology or fundamental scientific breakthrough that has been applied to, aided and/or improved the vision sciences. Bear and MIT will receive $100,000 and $400,000, respectively, to further advance his research harnessing synaptic plasticity to promote recovery from amblyopia, commonly known as “lazy eye.”

In work spanning several decades, Bear’s laboratory discovered many of the fundamental principles and mechanisms of synaptic plasticity in the cerebral cortex, which is the way the brain adjusts to sensory experience or deprivation. Through this research, they uncovered the synaptic basis of amblyopia, a severe visual impairment caused by poor quality vision during infancy and early childhood. Their work overturned the dogma that the loss of vision in amblyopia is a simple case of “use it or lose it.” Instead, their findings indicate that vision loss is actively triggered by neural activity originating in the affected eye. This activity causes synapses carrying information from the eye to weaken in visual cortex by a synaptic plasticity process called long-term depression. They have shown that long-term depression can be reversed under appropriate circumstances in animal models, raising hope for development of new approaches to cure amblyopia, even in adults.

“It’s an honor to be able to recognize Dr. Bear for his exceptional work in understanding the neural effects of sensory deprivation,” explained Dr. Anne Hultgren, Beckman Foundation’s Executive Director. “Dr. Bear’s work is an excellent example of how fundamental discoveries can directly lead to novel treatment possibilities for patients with conditions once thought incurable.”

The proposed research at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory will explore the potential of adult recovery from visual deprivation, and test specific hypotheses for improving the prognosis based on the principles of synaptic plasticity. The knowledge gained by this research will advance the understanding of how the cortex adapts to and compensates for loss of sensory input and has the potential to accelerate the development of novel therapeutic interventions for treatment of amblyopia.