IBRO expresses our deepest respect and appreciation for Professor Masao Ito who recently passed away on 18 December 2018. Dr. Ito was the 4th President of IBRO from 1980-84, the first President of Federation of Asian-Oceanian Neuroscience Societies and the Japan Neuroscience Society, as well as Past Director of RIKEN and Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Tokyo.
He obtained his Doctor of Medicine degree at the University of Tokyo Medical School in 1953 and then decided to pursue a career in neurophysiology. During that time, a new era in the field had begun with Bernard Katz’s discovery of quantal release of neurotransmitters, John Eccles’ discovery of inhibitory synaptic transmission and the Hodgkin-Huxley theory. The new technology used in these discoveries was glass microelectrodes connected to electronic instruments.
Ito was inspired and applied this technology to toad dorsal root ganglion cells which provided a very simple model of nerve cells. He made the first ever intracellular recording with a microelectrode from dorsal root ganglion cells, and studied the electrical properties of their membrane. His first physiology paper on electrical properties of these cells was published in the Japanese Journal of Physiology in 1957. It attracted positive acclaim from abroad which encouraged him further in his work.
He would eventually become best known for his discovery of the inhibitory action of cerebellar Purkinje cells, their characteristic synaptic plasticity responsible for long-term depression (LTD) and other fundamental studies of the physiology and function of the cerebellum. Over the years, his work was recognized by numerous prizes and awards including the Fujiwara Foundation prize, 1981; Imperial Prize Japan Academy, 1986; Neural Plasticity Prize IPSEN Foundation, 1993; Person of Cultural Merit award Japanese Government, 1996; Japan Prize The Science and Technology Foundation of Japan, 1996; and the Order of Culture, Japanese Government, 1996. Later in his career, he became a highly visible scientific leader in Japan and spokesperson for international cooperation in science.
Dr. Ito will be sadly missed by IBRO and the global neuroscience community.
You can read more about Dr. Ito’s life and research in this chapter from the History of Neuroscience in Autobiography series (1999).