David C. Van Essen, PhD, the Alumni Endowed Professor of Neuroscience at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has received the 2017 Glass Brain Award from the Organization of Human Brain Mapping. The award recognizes lifetime achievement in using neuroimaging to advance understanding of the brain.
Van Essen was honored for his five decades of work on the structure, function, development and evolution of the cerebral cortex in humans and in nonhuman primates. The cortex is the crumpled outer layer of the brain that is key to language, attention, perception, memory and other functions.
Early in his career, Van Essen taught himself to be a “cortical cartographer,” using pencil and tracing paper to map complex cortical folds. Later, he pioneered powerful computerized mapping methods. In 2016, he and MD/PhD student Matthew F. Glasser published a detailed new map of the cerebral cortex that delineated 180 brain regions so their functions and connections could be more accurately mapped.
That feat drew from the techniques and data of the Human Connectome Project. Co-led by Van Essen, who is also a professor of biomedical engineering, the project mapped brain structure, function and connectivity in more than 1,000 healthy young adults. By shedding light on normal brain function, the project provides a baseline from which doctors can better characterize differences that may be associated with brain disorders. That effort also made major contributions to how scientists acquire, analyze and share information about the living brain.
School of Medicine colleague Marcus Raichle, MD, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor of Medicine, also won the Glass Brain Award, in 2015.