‘Closure of a Circle’: Harvard Professor Haim Sompolinsky Wins Brain Prize for Neuroscience Research


Harvard professor Haim Sompolinsky was named a 2024 recipient of the Brain Prize — the world’s most prestigious honor for neuroscience research — by the Lundbeck Foundation on March 5.

Sompolinsky — who directs the Swarz Program in Theoretical Neuroscience at Harvard’s Center for Brain Science — was one of three experts in the neuroscience field selected this year. He shares the honor with Columbia University professor Larry F. Abbott and Salk Institute for Biological Sciences professor Terrence Sejnowski.

In addition to the €1.3 million prize to be shared among the recipients, the Lundbeck Foundation will honor Sompolinsky and his fellow winners this summer in Copenhagen, where they will be presented with their medals by King Frederik of Denmark.

Sompolinsky was awarded for his “pioneering contributions to the field of computational and theoretical neuroscience,” according to the Brain Prize’s website. His work focuses on using conceptual frameworks derived from physics to unveil the core structures undergirding cognitive function.


In an interview, Sompolinsky said that when he started to work on neuroscience through the lens of physics four decades ago, it was “something which was very, very unconventional and marginalized.”

This award, Sompolinsky said, marks “the first time, theoretical and computational neuroscience is recognized at the highest level of the international community.”

“That’s an enormous encouragement for researchers — and particularly young researchers — to pursue the study of neuroscience from all different perspectives,” he added.

The establishment of the Center for Brain Science in 2004 was “the first time Harvard recognized and invested in developing brain science,” Sompolinsky said.

“Research is a very key component, but education or training young researchers is extremely important as well,” he added.

Sompolinsky, who is also an associate faculty member at the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence, has recently begun to focus on how artificial neural networks can be used to learn more about natural systems.

Sompolinsky said the dual goals of his current and future research are, “on the one hand side, to improve our interpretability of the artificial neural networks that are employed by AI, and on the other hand, to use this insight to formulate new predictions, new models, new hypotheses about the circuits in the brain.”

“This Institute together with the Center for Brain Science propel Harvard to the forefront of the multidisciplinary quest for unraveling the neural mechanisms of cognition and behavior,” he wrote in a follow-up emailed statement.

Sompolinsky said that in addition to serving as a testament to his professional success, the award also holds personal meaning.

“I was born in Copenhagen a few years after the end of the war and my father was a young medical student during the Second World War,” Sompolinsky said. “He, together with some of his teachers and friends from the Danish resistance movement at the time, helped evacuate all the Jews.”

Now, Sompolinsky said he will “be back in Copenhagen in May for the ceremony, shaking hands with the king who is the grandchild of the king at the time of the war.”

“It’s kind of the closure of a circle,” he added.

Still, Sompolinsky said, winning the Brain Prize is not the end of his ambitions.

“The future is to attack a complex problem or a complex domain of inquiry from multiple approaches, and the synergy and brainstorming of different domains of knowledge can just enrich and empower this inquiry,” he said.

“For us, AI opens a new window — a whole new world of opportunities,” Sompolinsky said.