W. ALDEN SPENCER, Professor of Physiology and Neurology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, died at the age of 46 in November of 1977. Alden was born in Portland, Oregon, received his B.A. at Reed College, and his M.D. and M.S. degree in neurophysiology at the University of Oregon Medical School. After internship, he became a research fellow in the laboratory of Neurophysiology at the N.I.H. He then took post-doctoral training in Moruzzi's laboratory at the University of Pisa, Italy. He returned to the United States in 1961, teaching first at Oregon, and then at New York University Medical Center. In 1974 he moved to Columbia with laboratories in the Center for Neurobiology & Behavior.
Spencer's research covered a broad spectrum of neurophysiology. At the NIH, he studied the electrophysiology of the hippocampal pyramidal cell. This was the first intracellular study of a non-motor neuron in the mammalian central nervous system, and opened up the modern study of the hippocampus. He next showed that the epileptiform discharge in the hippocampus was due to a shift in the balance between excitatory and inhibitory pathways in which excitatory activity was potentiated and inhibitory action suppressed. The notion that some forms of epilepsy are due to abnormalities in the potency of synaptic connections, as well as to intrinsic changes in the spiking behavior of individual neurons, has made a major impact on clinical thinking about epilepsy. In a major series of studies Spencer developed a neural model for studying habituation, the simplest form of learning. In later years, Spencer turned to sensory neurophysiology where he introduced the idea of looking at a stimulus in its context -- how multiple stimuli transform one another. To his friends, Spencer is remembered as a most generous and humorous colleague, a deeply creative man whose modesty and enthusiasm remain a source of continual delight and enrichment. To honor his contributions and his friendship the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University established an award, with an endowment raised from neural scientists throughout the world.
The W. Alden Spencer Lecture and Award is given each year, by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Department of Neuroscience and The Kavli Institute for Brain Science, to an investigator in recognition of outstanding research contributions in Neural Science.