Visionary neuroscientistDavid H. Hubel

A Canadian, Hubel was a Professor of Neurobiology who worked most of his career at Harvard Medical School. Hubel and his research partner, psychiatrist Torsten N. Wiesel, studied how vision worked. The brain’s “vision center” was already known, but when they put electrodes in the cerebral cortex of monkeys and cats to try to measure visual stimulus, they got nothing. They tried showing the animal a dot on a screen. They tried showing it bright flashes of light. They tried dancing for a cat. As a joke, they even tried sexy photos of women, but they still got nothing. “I knew we were losing traction in an experiment when Torsten began to talk to me in Swedish,” Hubel said. “Usually this was around 3:00 a.m.”

The key was to design much better electrodes, and then they got an explosion of data which helped explain not only how vision worked, but also provided help in treating vision problems, including childhood cataracts, strabismus (improper alignment between the two eyes, such as cross-eye), and amblyopia (“lazy eye”). Hubel and Wiesel discovered that vision is detected and processed by a combination of “simple” and “complex” cells — specialized neurons which combine in the brain to detect angles, edges of objects, motion, depth, and color. “When it comes to sheer fun, our field is hard to beat,” Hubel once said. “We try to keep that a secret.” Hubel and Wiesel worked together for a quarter century, and for their discoveries they shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1981. Dr. Hubel died in Massachusetts on September 22, from kidney failure. He was 87.

From This is True for 29 September 2013