Carla J. Shatz

Dr. Carla J. Shatz (born 1947) is an American neurobiologist and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Medicine.

Carla J. Shatz
Alma materRadcliffe College, University College London, Harvard University
Known forRole of neuronal activity in maturation of brain circuits
Scientific career
InstitutionsHoward Hughes Medical Institute
Stanford University
Harvard University
University of California, Berkeley
Doctoral advisorsDavid Hubel, Torsten Wiesel
Other academic advisorsPasko Rakic
Notable studentsAnirvan Ghosh, Marla B. Feller, Susan K. McConnell, Richard D. Mooney, Rachel Wong, Lisa M. Boulanger

She was the first woman to receive a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard.[1][2] Shatz received a tenured position in the basic sciences at Stanford Medical School and later returned to Harvard to head the university's Department of Neurobiology. In both cases, Shatz was the first woman hired for the position.[3][1]


Shatz graduated from Radcliffe College in 1969 with a B.A. in chemistry. She received an M.Phil. in Physiology from the University College London in 1971 on a Marshall Scholarship. In 1976, she received a Ph.D. in neurobiology from Harvard Medical School, where she studied with the Nobel laureates David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel. From 1976 to 1978 she obtained postdoctoral training with Pasko Rakic in the department of neuroscience, Harvard Medical School.

In 1978, Shatz moved to Stanford University, where she began her studies of the development of the mammalian visual system in the department of Neurobiology. She became professor of neurobiology in 1989. In 1992, she moved her laboratory to the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, where she became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator in 1994.

During 1994-1995, she was president of the Society for Neuroscience and served on the Council of the National Academy of Sciences from 1998 to 2001. From 2000 until 2007, she was the chair of the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and the Nathan Marsh Pusey Professor of Neurobiology. Notably, she was the first woman to chair this department.[1] She loved Stanford but says, "I couldn't turn it down because I felt I was on a mission to represent women at the highest levels."[3]

She also helped to develop the Harvard Center for Neurodegeneration and Repair (now named the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center[4]) and led the Harvard Center for Brain Imaging. Shatz was the inaugural chair of The Sapp Family Provostial Professorship, holds professorship appointments in both the Department of Biology (School of Humanities and Sciences) and in Neurobiology (School of Medicine) and is David Starr Jordan Director of the Bio-X program at the Stanford University School of Medicine.


Shatz is one of the pioneers who determined some of the basic principles of early brain development. She found that the spontaneous activity of neurons in utero is critical for the formation of precise and orderly neural connections in the central nervous system.[5] She discovered that waves of spontaneous activity in the retina can alter gene expression and the strength of synaptic connections.[6] In 2000, Shatz and colleagues identified Class I MHC molecules as important in neuronal plasticity, a surprising new role for molecules previously thought to have only immune system function.[7][8]

Shatz is credited with coining the sentence summarizing the Hebbian theory: "Cells that fire together, wire together." Although a similar phrase might first have appeared in print in Siegrid Löwel's Science article in January, 1992, Shatz had been using it in lectures for a number of years before. In her September 1992 Scientific American article, she wrote, "Segregation to form the columns in the visual cortex [...] proceeds when the two nerves are stimulated asynchronously. In a sense, then, cells that fire together wire together. The timing of action-potential activity is critical in determining which synaptic connections are strengthened and retained and which are weakened and eliminated."[9]


Shatz's honors include:

  • 1985 Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award[10]
  • 2006 Gill Prize presented by the Indiana University Gill Center for Biomolecular Sciences
  • 2011 Gerard Prize from the Society for Neuroscience[11]
  • 2013 The Mortimer D. Sackler, M.D. Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Developmental Psychobiology[12]
  • Silvo Conte Award from the National Foundation for Brain Research
  • Charles A. Dana Award for Pioneering Achievement in Health and Education
  • Alcon Award for Outstanding Contributions to Vision Research
  • Bernard Sachs Award from the Child Neurology Society
  • 2016 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience
  • Weizmann Women & Science Award

She has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Philosophical Society.

In 1997, she was invited by President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton to speak at the White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning.[13]

In 2011, she was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London.[14]

In 2015, she was awarded the Gruber prize in Neuroscience,[15] and in 2016 the Champalimaud Foundation Vision Award.[16] She will receive the Harvey Prize for 2017 from the Technion in June 2018 in Israel.[17]

Major publications


  1. Paul, C. A (2005). "An Interview with Carla Shatz - Harvard's First Female Neurobiology Chair". Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education. 3 (2): E4–5. PMC 3592607. PMID 23495301.
  2. "Neurobiologist Carla Shatz shares her perspective - Scope Blog". 2016-02-11. Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  3. Davies, Daniel M. (2013). Compatibility Gene. Allen Lane. p. 150. ISBN 978-1846145148.
  4. "Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center".
  5. Shatz, C. J; Stryker, M. P (1978). "Ocular dominance in layer IV of the cat's visual cortex and the effects of monocular deprivation". The Journal of Physiology. 281: 267–83. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1978.sp012421. PMC 1282696. PMID 702379.
  6. Feller, M. B; Wellis, D. P; Stellwagen, D; Werblin, F. S; Shatz, C. J (1996). "Requirement for cholinergic synaptic transmission in the propagation of spontaneous retinal waves". Science. 272 (5265): 1182–7. Bibcode:1996Sci...272.1182F. doi:10.1126/science.272.5265.1182. PMID 8638165.
  7. Huh, G. S; Boulanger, L. M; Du, H; Riquelme, P. A; Brotz, T. M; Shatz, C. J (2000). "Functional requirement for class I MHC in CNS development and plasticity". Science. 290 (5499): 2155–9. Bibcode:2000Sci...290.2155H. doi:10.1126/science.290.5499.2155. PMC 2175035. PMID 11118151.
  8. "Molecules key to immune system also play role in brain". April 2009. Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  9. Shatz, Carla J. (September 1992). "The Developing Brain". Scientific American. 267 (3): 60–7. Bibcode:1992SciAm.267c..60S. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0992-60. JSTOR 24939213. PMID 1502524.
  10. "Society for Neuroscience". Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  11. "Society for Neuroscience". Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  12. "Pioneer in Neural Development Carla Shatz, PhD, Wins Prestigious Prize - Columbia University Medical Center". 19 February 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  13. "White House Conference on Early Childhood Development & Learning". Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  14. "Carla Shatz". Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  15. "Carla Shatz - The Gruber Foundation". Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  16. "Carla Shatz wins the 2016 Antonio Champalimaud Vision Award! - Welcome to Bio-X". Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  17. "הטכניון - מכון טכנולוגי לישראל - Technion".
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