The IZN has three objectives:
- 'Bundling' of the fundamental research being carried out in the neurosciences, with the intention of achieving synergistic effects and consequently increased refinement of scientific capacity
- Intensification of research in the fringe areas between fundamental research in neurosciences and clinical neurobiology, with the intention of improving conditions for research and for the application of its results in the treatment of patients in clinical neurology and psychiatry
- Networking between its research staff and researchers in subsectors within the fields of physics, chemistry and scientifc computing, all of which are expected to contribute in a decisive and significant way to the elucidation of the complex functions of the central nervous system
Significance of neurosciences in fundamental research and clinical medicine
In the last decade, declared the Decade of the Brain by the US Congress, and in the current decade, which is Germany's Decade of the Brain, it has become clear that neurosciences will be one of the leading disciplines in fundamental biomedical research in this century. There is a number of reasons for this: one is that far more genes are expressed in the nervous system, the most complex of all organ systems, than in any other organ. Even for this reason alone, in this dawning "postgenome" era of biomedicine, the nervous system will probably be the number 1 subject of investigation. On the other hand, in the nervous system the basic molecular and cellular mechanisms that are responsible for the functions of all cell types and organs are applied very intensively and in particularly refined forms. This explains why insights into fundamental cellular processes were gained in the past particularly from investigations on nervous tissue and why this is expected to be the case in the future. Examples of such insights are the explanation of the machineries of the ion channels, receptors and signal transduction cascades, and of the cellular adhesion mechanisms, the control of cell survival and cell death by 'life' and 'death' signals, the secretion of transmitter substances, and transport through cellular membranes.
The neurosciences are extremely important not only for future fundamental research in the biomedical field, but also for clinical medicine. The increased life expectancy and changed living conditions are linked with a drastic increase in neurological and psychic illnesses, at considerable cost to society. Regardless of whether stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression or addiction is concerned, there is general agreement internationally that in the long term the challenge of developing causally-orientated therapies for these illnesses can only be met by institutionalized intermeshing of fundamental research and clinical medicine.
In the postgenome era, biomedical research in general, but neurosciences in particular, are faced with substantial problems, above all problems of conceptual and logistic nature, as far as the necessity for quantitative and quasi-simultaneous analyses of the dynamic changes in large molecular and cellular networks is concerned. At this point, inputs from theoretical biology and scientific computing, modelling, simulation, biocomputing and bioinformatics are needed, in addition to experimental work. We cannot expect that normal and disturbed brain function will be explained without substantial contributions from these sectors of science.
Neurosciences in Heidelberg
It certainly can be said without a trace of exaggeration that Heidelberg is one of the strongholds of neuroscientific research in Europe. The neuroscientific working groups at the University, including the University Hospital, the Max-Planck-Institute for Medical Research, the German Cancer Research Centre, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the Mannheim Central Institute for Mental Health, occupy top rankings internationally, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. Publications in top-class journals, the sponsorship attracted from external sources, and the distinctions bestowed on outstanding personalities active in research all bear witness to the high-calibre scientific achievements of these working groups. Joint ventures of research groups working in fundamental neurobiological research with the pharmaceutical giants present in the Heidelberg-Mannheim-Ludwigshafen region and with medium-sized biotechnological enterprises emphasize the links between the neurobiological research going on in Heidelberg and its applications.
The first collaborative research centre (Sonderforschungsbereich, SFB) in the neurosciences with a molecular orientation was founded in the mid-1980s with SFB 317: "Molecular biology of neural mechanisms and interactions", which was based in the University and which marked the new direction the development of neurosciences was to take in Germany. In addition to SFB 317 there arose several research groups funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation, DFG), the postgraduate course on Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology, and major projects supported by the BMBF (German Federal Ministry for Education and Research), including the BioRegio and BioFuture programs. This research direction was further consolidated by the restructuring of Neurobiology as an institute with departmental structure, the establishment of a research emphasis in neurobiology at the ZMBH (Heidelberg Centre for Molecular Biology), and the establishment of the Schilling Chair of Clinical Neurobiology. The establishment of SFB 488 "Molecular and cellular bases of neural developmental processes" in 2000 was a considerable boost for developmental neurobiology in Heidelberg, which will be consolidated further by the creation of a C4 Chair in Developmental Neurobiology within the Faculty of Biology and the application to implement a postgraduate course of study entitled "Processes of neural developmental and degeneration". Further initiatives, such as the application to establish a DFG research centre for neurosciences, underscore the desire of those engaged in neurobiological research in Heidelberg to maintain their high scientific standards, and if possible even to increase them.
Conception of the IZN and expected synergistic effects
The University of Heidelberg's strong position in the neuroscience sector, as described above, and the expected synergistic effects suggested that it would be advisable to consolidate and extend the structures that have arisen within the area of neuroscientific research at the University of Heidelberg by establishing an Interdisciplinary Center for Neurosciences (IZN). On 16 June 2000 the IZN was officially opened in the presence of dignitaries representing the Baden-Württemberg Ministry for Science, Research and Art and the University. The University Senate approved the Centrer's Administration and Usage Regulations (VBO), which allow a group structure according to which both regular professors with life tenure and scientists appointed on limited-term contracts can act as group leaders as the organizational form of the IZN. This structure guarantees scientific continuity and allows constant innovation at the same time. The compound structure made up of the three departments of the 'core sector', Neurobiology (Faculty of Biology), Clinical Neurobiology, and Neuroanatomy (Faculty of Medicine), soon to be joined by a fourth department, Developmental Neurobiology (Faculty of Biology), is the basis for the desired interdisciplinary nature of the Center.
Within the sector of neurosciences, the disappearance of the borders separating the classic subspecialities within biomedicine is more advanced than in other scientific sectors. This means that conventional institutional structures with exclusively vertical organization and innumerable subordinate positions are no longer appropriate these days. Consistent application of the performance principle, regular external evaluation, early independence for promising scientists called for limited periods, performance-related distribution of resources, intensive promotion of scientific potential and the establishment of an interdisciplinary postgraduate course of study in neurobiology are therefore essential principles and aims of the IZN.
The IZN is pursuing synergistic effects on several levels:
(1) Scientific Interaction
Establishment of independent working groups of manageable size and with greater emphasis on performance justifies expectations of more competition and scientific interaction and therefore of high achievement.
(2) Young Scientists
Further extension of the independent working groups headed by promising young scientists will extend the range of research topics in neurosciences in Heidelberg and make a substantial contribution to ensuring security of supply of university teachers for the subjects concerned in years to come.
(3) Central Service Units
The establishment of central service units that use highly specialized methods, requiring high levels of financial investment and that can no longer be supported by individual institutes, will be made considerably easier by the pooling of resources. One example is the extensive catalog of modern morphological methods, including laser scanning microscopy, multi-photon microscopy, calcium imaging, transmission electron microscopy, ultracryotomy, digital absorption and processing procedures, that can already be offered in the Central Morphological Service Unit.
(4) Networking of Fundamental Research and Clinical Medicine
The integration of fundamental neurobiological research and clinical neurobiology that has already been started cannot be realized except within a structure such as the IZN. We expect a substantial leap forward in development from this union of scientific-fundamental knowledge and medical-clinical knowledge.
(5) Networking of the Neurosciences with Sectors bordering on Physics, Chemistry and Scientific Computing
Quantitative analysis of the momentum of molecular and cellular processes, which is necessary for the explanation of higher brain functions, cannot be achieved without contributions from mathematics, physics and chemistry. The IZN expects substantial advances in the neurosciences to result from the implementation of such disciplines as bioinformatics, biocomputing, modelling and simulation, and also from progress made in the nanotechnology sector. These interactions require interfaculty initiatives and will have implications for the steps that need to be taken concerning the structure of the entire university.