David C. Van Essen

Washington University in St. Louis


Election Year: 2017
Primary Section: 28, Systems Neuroscience
Secondary Section: 24, Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
Membership Type: Member

Biosketch

David Van Essen is a neuroscientist who studies the structure, function, connectivity, development, and evolution of cerebral cortex in humans and nonhuman primates. He was born and raised in California, was an undergraduate chemistry major at Caltech, and received his PhD in Neurobiology from Harvard working on the leech nervous system with John Nichols. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard (with Hubel and Wiesel), at the University of Oslo (with Jan Jansen), and at University College London. He joined the faculty at Caltech in 1976, then moved to Washington University in St. Louis in 1992, where he headed the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology for two decades. His other leadership positions include Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neuroscience, Senior Editor for eLife, President and Secretary of the Society for Neuroscience, founding chair of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, a Principal Investigator for the Human Connectome Project and for two Lifespan Connectome Projects, and service on many advisory committees and boards. His many awards include the George A. Miller Award in Cognitive Neuroscience, the Krieg Cortical Discoverer Award, and several awards for teaching excellence. He is a Fellow of the AAAS and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Research Interests

David Van Essen’s laboratory has made major contributions to our understanding of cortical structure, function, connectivity, evolution, and development in humans and nonhuman primates. Their cortical cartography efforts began with manually generated cortical flat-maps and progressed to a powerful suite of software tools for brain visualization and analysis. Their efforts on cortical parcellation identified many visual areas in the macaque monkey and more recently characterized a novel 180-area-per-hemisphere parcellation of human neocortex using multimodal neuroimaging data from the Human Connectome Project. This parcellation is applicable to individual subjects and should enable better characterization of cortical organization and function in health, disease, development, and aging. Their studies of cortical connectivity revealed principles of distributed hierarchical organization and emphasize the importance of quantitative analyses of connection strengths. Analyses across species and ages reveal that higher cognitive regions have expanded preferentially in the human lineage and also during postnatal maturation. Their efforts in neuroinformatics promote user-friendly sharing of data at many levels of analysis. Van Essen has hypothesized that tension along axons and dendrites accounts for many aspects of morphogenesis, including how and why the cortex gets its folds and how cortical folding abnormalities arise in brain disorders. His earlier research included studies of simpler systems, including synapse elimination at the neuromuscular junction.

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