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Laureate of the 2010 ATIP-Avenir program


Explaining cell locomotion

At the French Brain & Spine Institute (ICM), Claire Wyart is using light as a noninvasive method for studying locomotion in awake, moving animals.

Tetraplegic patients’ spinal cords still contain many functional neurons. The research carried out by Claire Wyart offers hope of enabling them to walk again, by helping to develop brain-machine interfaces.

Supported by the Foundation to create a team at the French Brain & Spine Institute, Claire Wyart returned from her postdoctoral research in the United States with expertise in optogenetics, a technique revolutionizing the field of gene expression.

The idea is almost simple: Channelrhodopsin-2, a blue light-sensitive protein, is capable of activating or deactivating the electric current in cells. Claire Wyart’s team modifies zebrafish brain cells to express this protein. In order to activate the group of modified cells, they simply need to  light up the aquarium, since young zebrafish are transparent.

This technique is used to identify the fundamental roles of the sensory brain cells present in the ependymal channel of all vertebrates: the cerebrospinal fluid-contacting neurons. An understanding of the cellular and mechanical workings of locomotion is important for developing methods to improve axon regeneration and cell proliferation. These methods could compensate for the lesions that follow spinal cord trauma.



After a thesis in biophysics at a physics laboratory, Claire Wyart turned to work on a more integrated system. She wanted to study neuronal activity and functions in a whole animal. At Berkeley, she encountered the zebrafish. Her postdoctoral work enabled her to develop the tools for controlling neuron activity that she uses today. In particular, optogenetics have enabled her to discover the role of spinal cerebrospinal fluid-contacting neurons, a type of spinal cord cells that had been known for 75 years without scientists understanding how they worked.

The Bettencourt Schueller Foundation helped Dr. Wyart set up research at the Brain & Spine Institute, enabling her to gradually extend her focus beyond her initial basic questions. Working in contact with clinical doctors, she is currently developing projects that could lead to medical applications for healing spinal trauma.


  • 2000 - 2004PhD in Biophysics and Neuroscience, University of Strasbourg (France)
  • 2004Prize for the best PhD thesis awarded by the Scientific Council of Louis Pasteur University, Strasbourg (France)
  • 2004Défi Jeunes Prize for the Terma project (construction of science laboratories in Tibetan schools in Nepal and India)
  • 2005Fondation Blancmesnil prize for the Terma documentary
  • 2005 - 2010Postdoctoral research in Neurosciences and Chemical Biology, supervised by Prof. Ehud Isacoff and Prof. Noam Sobel, University of California, Berkeley (United States)
  • 2009Society for Neuroscience Award
  • 2010Laureate of the ATIP-Avenir program at CNRS and Inserm in partnership with the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation
  • 2010Chair of Excellence, ENP (Ecole des Neurosciences de Paris)
  • 2010Fyssen Foundation Prize
  • Since 2011Principal Investigator, “probing dynamic sensory-motor integration in spinal circuits" team, Brain & Spine Institute, Paris (France)
  • 2011Emergences Prize, City of Paris
  • 2011First-class Researcher, Inserm (France)
  • 2013Irène-Joliot Curie Prize for young women in science