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USC Neuroscientist Earns Asturias Award

USC Neuroscientist Earns Asturias Award
Antonio Damasio is the sole winner in the scientific category. The jury says his contributions have reshaped an understanding of emotions, language and decision-making.

By Carl Marziali

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, director of USC’s new Institute for the Study of the Brain and Creativity, accepted the 2005 Prince of Asturias Award Oct. 21 in Oviedo, Spain.

Little known in English-speaking countries, the Asturias prize ranks among the world’s highest honors in influence and selectivity.

Damasio was the sole winner in the scientific category. Past recipients include Craig Venter, who led the team that mapped the human genome; Judah Folkman, who discovered how to kill tumor cells by cutting off their blood supply; and AIDS virus co-discoverers Robert Gallo and Luc Montangier.

The last winner of an undivided prize was primatologist Jane Goodall in 2003.

Winners in the other award categories – arts, social sciences, letters, communication and humanities, international cooperation, concord (equivalent to a peace prize) and sports – have included statesmen Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev, astronaut John Glenn and playwright Arthur Miller.

The 22-member jury selected Damasio for his research on “the decisive problems of the basic neuroscience of the mind and of behaviour."

The award citation states, “His contributions have had a major influence on our understanding of the neural bases of decision-making, emotions, language and memory."

Through research papers and acclaimed books such as “Descartes’ Error,” recently reissued in a 10th anniversary edition, Damasio has shown that emotions play a crucial role in rational thought and decision-making.

His work undercut a century-old movement in neuroscience that considered feelings irrelevant to the study of reason. He belongs to a small group of “most cited researchers” in neuroscience as tracked by the Institute of Scientific Research.

Joseph Aoun, dean of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said: “The Prince of Asturias Award is extremely prestigious and acknowledges scientific, technical, cultural, social and humanitarian work of international scope. We are extremely proud to have a scientist of Antonio’s caliber as part of USC College’s research enterprise.”

Damasio’s institute at USC will direct interdisciplinary research focusing on the connections between emotion, decision-making and creativity.

“The critical part of the activity of the institute is going deeper in the understanding of how emotions and reason interact to permit decision-making, both in the personal space and in the public space,” Damasio said.

Given its wide scope, the institute’s research projects could include faculty from almost every part of campus.

“Although every university pays some sort of lip service to interdisciplinarity, USC actually relishes interdisciplinarity,” Damasio said. “When you look at the College and its structures and you think of the schools that surround the College right here on the campus – and I am not even including the medical school – you see a very rich environment where there are high-level specialists in many of the fields that I happen to be interested in.”

Much of the institute’s research will employ the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) system in the Dornsife Neuroscience Imaging Center.

Hanna Damasio, the center’s co-director, Damasio’s spouse and longtime collaborator, is a renowned neuroscientist and author of two well-regarded reference texts, “Human Brain Anatomy in Computerized Images” and “Lesion Analysis in Neuropsychology.”

Fundamental to the Damasios’ research is their conviction that a proper understanding of emotion is crucial to one’s development as a human being. Maturity requires a successful negotiation between reason, knowledge and the emotional pressures in everyday life, Antonio Damasio said.

“In order to achieve what is in fact a very, very difficult accommodation, the more we know about how the process works in the first place, the more we are likely to succeed.”

As for his emotional reaction to the prize announcement, Damasio sought to balance joy with rational perspective: “Whenever one gets a prize, these days, you are one among many people who could get exactly the same distinction. I think that prizes are both very pleasant and very humbling experiences.”

Damasio’s other honors include the Signoret Prize (2004), which he shared with Hanna Damasio, the Nonino Prize (2003), the Golden Brain Award (1995) and the American Medical Association’s William Beaumont Prize (1990). He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. Both Damasios are members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.