Salk neuroscientist Kay M. Tye has received the 2021 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists for brain research she’s done which could ultimately help revolutionize mental-health treatment.
Established in 2007 through a partnership with the Blavatnik Family Foundation, $250,000 Blavatnik cash grant awards are given annually to selected faculty and postdoctoral researchers age 42 years and younger. Awards are presented to researchers throughout the United States, Israel, and the United Kingdom who work in the life, physical sciences, and engineering fields.
Award winners are deemed rising stars in their respective fields. Kay M. Tye, Ph.D., professor, Systems Neuroscience Laboratory at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, was a unanimous choice to be the 2021 Blavatnik National Awards Laureate in Life Sciences.
“Kay Tye is a trailblazing investigator who studies the neural circuits underlying emotions, which are among the most complicated and fascinating circuitries in the brain,” said Elaine Fuchs, Ph.D., chair of the 2021 Blavatnik National Awards Life Sciences Jury. “Kay is not only a superb neuroscientist but a superb speaker who has the clarity of explaining her science in a way that dazzles her audiences and a strong advocate for women in science, serving as a role model for many.”
Tye has discovered a neural pathway that underlies an animal’s willingness to engage in compulsive reward-seeking behaviors despite negative consequences, offering insight into the methodology of problem behaviors like drug addiction. More recently, she has explored the neural circuits that are activated when animals are exposed to social isolation and experience a “loneliness-like” state. That is particularly relevant now due to the restrictions and increased isolation experienced by many during the COVID 19 pandemic.
“Tye investigates the neural circuitry that drives emotions and cognitive abilities to better understand addiction and depression,” said Nicholas B. Dirks, the New York Academy of Sciences president and CEO. “The pandemic of the past year has shown that the world needs science, now more than ever. These new Blavatnik National Awards Laureates for 2021 have forged new ways to use scientific research to create new and important understandings about ourselves and the world in which we live. We welcome these brilliant young scientists into the global community.”
The 40-year-old La Jolla scientist is a New York State native whose parents were both Cornell University professors. Tye became interested in unlocking the secrets of the mind through research because, as she noted, “the brain gives rise to the mind which makes us individual beings with emotions, memories and a consciousness which makes us different from a computer or a cell phone.”
Tye’s research explores the scientific foundational basis behind cravings, anxiety, addictions, and loneliness. ”This is a boundary-breaking type of research that bridges two fields – psychology and neural science – which historically have not been linked, though the link is clear to me,” she said.
Concerning her Blavatnik Award Tye said: “It’s such an incredible honor to be called a champion of science. It’s just absolutely transformative.”
Noting that “nobody gets into science for the money because it’s not lucrative,” Tye said she became a scientist because she was “obsessed to know more about the way things are.”
The neuroscientist is sharing her award with her Salk research team. “We are all being recognized for this together,” she said.
What about the practical applications for Tye’s neurological brain research? Will it be able to help people understand, or fight, mental-health issues like substance addiction, depression, or loneliness?
“Our current state of mental health treatment is very poor, based on trial and error, shooting in the dark,” Tye said. “We have no idea how the brain works. If we could figure out how the brain does things, it would revolutionize mental-health treatment as we know it.”
Concluded Tye of the future potential for brain research, “Imagine a future where you could find a treatment that would work for everybody without bringing a bunch of horrible side effects or symptoms? To me it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. It’s about building on humankind’s collective knowledge. That’s what science is all about.”
The 2021 Blavatnik National Awards competition received 298 nominees from 157 research institutions across 38 states. The three independent juries—one for each of the awards’ categories of life sciences, chemistry, and physical sciences, and engineering—were composed of some of America’s most distinguished scientists. These judges selected the laureates from a group of 31 finalists.