Who Was First?

As is the case with most areas of science and engineering, the field of neurotechnology has moved forward as the result of pioneering discoveries that have led to new products, new therapeutic approaches, and new branches of investigation. As is also often the case, there can be disagreement among researchers as to who was the first to make that important discovery.

Such was the case in the field of optics regarding who invented the laser. Theodore Maiman built the first working laser in 1960 but Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow were awarded a patent for a potassium-vapor laser in 1959, even though that laser was never built. Townes and Schawlow won the Nobel Prize; Maiman did not. (A great account of that saga can be found in The Laser Inventor, Springer International, 2018.)

In our field, disputes about who was the first to construct a brain-computer interface have simmered for years, as researchers such as John Donoghue, Andy Schwartz, Miguel Nicolelis, Phil Kennedy, Richard Anderson, and others all claim some piece of the credit. We reported one such encounter in this space back in 2003 [NBR Nov03 p2].

More recently, questions have emerged about who invented the field of optogenetics, which has become one of the highest profile areas of research in neuroscience and neuroengineering. Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and Ed Boyden of MIT are generally regarded as the inventors of optogenetics and many expect them to be future Nobel laureates. The pair received the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2015, which earned them $3 million each, and the Brain Prize in 2013, with a total payday of €1 million. (Deisseroth was also the recipient of the 2008 Gold Electrode Award for Neurotechnology Researcher of the Year from this publication, which netted him a fancy piece of paper.)

But a 2016 article in STAT reported that an obscure Wayne State researcher named Zhuo-Hua Pan may have invented optogenetics before Deisseroth and Boyden. His paper outlining how his team used a viral vector to get channelrhodopsin into a living eye to make cells responsive to blue light was rejected by Nature Neuroscience in 2004. A year later, the same journal published Deisseroth and Boyden’s paper, which was eerily similar. No one has accused either scientist of anything unethical, though the journal’s policies have come into question.

Now in our defense, NBR senior technical editor Warren Grill first reported on genetic manipulation of neurons to make them responsive to light in this publication in January 2003 [NBR Jan03 p1]. And he cited both Pan’s and Deisseroth’s work in January 2007 [NBR Jan07 p1]. Still it might be necessary for us to reissue our Gold Electrode Award to include the contributions of Zhuo-Hua Pan.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher


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