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Erich Jarvis Receives NIH Pioneer Award

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

Duke University Medical Center neurobiologist Erich Jarvis
has been selected as a recipient of a 2005 National Institutes
of Health (NIH) Director's Pioneer Award. The award -- which
provides an unrestricted grant of $500,000 per year for five
years -- was established "to encourage highly innovative
approaches to biomedical research that have the potential to
lead to significant advances in human health," according to the
institute.

Jarvis, an associate professor of neurobiology, was among 13
researchers named to receive the awards, which were announced
on September 29, 2005, by NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni,
M.D.

"The scientists we recognize with Pioneer Awards have
far-ranging ideas that hold the potential to make truly
extraordinary contributions to many fields of medical
research," Zerhouni said. "The recipients reflect the talent
and diversity of the impressive group of scientists who
competed for the award." Zerhouni said.

This is the second year that a Duke Medical Center
researcher has won this award since its inception in 2004. Last
year's Duke awardee was biochemist Homme Hellinga.

Jarvis's research has concentrated on the neurobiology of
vocal communication, using songbirds as a model. His studies
have revealed new insights into the genetics and molecular
biology of learned vocal communication.

In 1997, he and his former advisor Fernando Nottebohm
discovered that the act of producing learned vocalizations in
songbirds activates increased expression of genes involved in
brain plasticity. In 1998, he and his colleagues found dramatic
differences in this activation depending on the social context
in which the animals communicate. In studies from 2000 to 2004,
they found that similar gene activation occurs in other vocal
learning species, and they used these findings to gain insight
into the evolution of brain pathways for vocal learning,
including in humans.

In 2004, Jarvis and his colleagues also discovered that a
nearly identical version of a gene -- FoxP2 -- to one whose
mutation produces an inherited language deficit in humans, is a
key component of the song-learning machinery in birds. And in
2005, they found that night-migratory songbirds possess a
specialized night-vision brain area. This structure could
enable the birds to navigate by the stars and even to visually
detect the earth's magnetic field.

Jarvis has also led an international consortium of
neuroscientists that in 2004 proposed a drastic renaming of the
structures of the bird brain to correctly portray birds as more
comparable to mammals in their cognitive ability.

He plans to use his Pioneer Award to test a hypothesis about
the genetic machinery underlying vocal learning that could pave
the way for repairing vocalization disorders in humans.

Jarvis was originally a dancer and went to the High School
of the Performing Arts in New York City. He received a B.A. in
biology and mathematics from Hunter College in 1988, where he
published six papers on bacterial molecular genetics with his
undergraduate advisor Rivka Rudner. He received his Ph.D. from
The Rockefeller University in 1995, working on songbirds with
Nottebohm. His education and research training were funded by
the MARC and MBRS programs of the National Institutes of
Health, which supports underrepresented and disadvantaged
students that want to pursue careers in the sciences. He came
to Duke in 1998. In 2002, the National Science Foundation gave
him its highest honor for a young researcher - the Alan T.
Waterman Award.

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