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10 February 2005

Gay-Lussac-Humboldt Prize for Prof. Dr. Hannah Monyer

Heidelberg neurobiologist receives the Gay-Lussac-Humboldt Prize for research on "gap junctions" — Important insights into the functioning of fast neuronal information channels — Prize in recognition of services to Franco-German cooperation in the sciences — Research work done in Heidelberg and Paris

Gay-Lussac-Humboldt Prize for Prof. Dr. Hannah Monyer

The Heidelberg neurobiologist Prof. Dr. Hannah Monyer hit the headlines last year when she was selected for the German Research Foundation's Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize. Now, a year later, she has received a further distinction, this time one that foregrounds Franco-German academic cooperation. The Gay-Lussac-Humboldt Prize is awarded every year to five German academics who have been particularly notable for their achievements in this respect.

Of German/Romanian descent, Hannah Monyer is at present the medical director of the Department of Clinical Neurobiology at the University Hospital in Heidelberg. Her research work centres around the links ensuring the transmission of excitation between nerve cells or between a nerve cell and a sensory, muscle or gland cell. This transmission can either be effected by chemical synapses requiring a chemical messenger substance — the neurotransmitter — to bridge the gap between the cells in question, or it can take place via tiny channels establishing a connection between them. These channels are the "gap junctions" Hannah Monyer hit upon some five years ago. "The interesting thing," she says, "is that data transmission through these channels is much quicker. Many of our cognitive abilities are only conceivable on this basis."

"When it comes to representing the world in our brains," Hannah Monyer explains, "very many nerve cells in very different areas of the brain are in action at the same time." Recently she has been pre-eminently concerned with the way the individual cells are harmonised or synchronised. "You might say that we've been looking for the conductor of this complicated orchestra of cells." Help in this direction came from the deciphering of the human genome, leading to a new focus on certain molecules tentatively identified as the "conductors" in the neuronal orchestra. Says Monyer: "We were able to show that the nerve cells we ascribed the navigation of the system to have an additional channel establishing connections between pairs of cells."

The experiments took five months and were conducted in Paris two years ago, at the renowned Institut Pasteur. "Of course I could have realised the lab set-up in Heidelberg too," says Hannah Monyer, "but it was much easier to transfer the research to Paris, where after major initial difficulties my colleague Roberto Bruzzone and I were finally able to substantiate my theory." Subsequently Bruzzone came to Heidelberg for 18 months to complete the study. Now the project has proved doubly successful, both scientifically and as an instance of international cooperation acknowledged by the award of the Gay-Lussac-Humboldt Prize.

The Prize dates back to 1982 and an agreement between the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the French Ministry of Education and Research to promote academic cooperation between France and Germany. To be eligible for the Prize, French and German academics not only have to have an international reputation and be engaged in ongoing research, they also need to have made a major contribution to the development of academic relations between the two countries.

The Prize monies are designed to finance research sojourns of six months' duration. This sojourn can be split up between different research institutions in the respective country. Every year five such Prizes are awarded to German academics proposed by French research institutions. Academics from all disciplines (including health and the social sciences) are eligible for the award.

"This distinction means a lot to me," says Hannah Monyer, though in the last resort the Prize monies are of secondary importance. "Of course you could say that 20,000 euros is not an awful lot in the field of medical research. But there are two things about the Prize that I find very important. First it is the best possible proof of the fact that one must never abandon a project just because it turns out to be difficult to get off the ground. After all we had quite a few setbacks and failures to come to terms with in our search for these 'fast data channels'. When that happens, the best policy is to get your head down, soldier on and not let yourself be put off."

"You might say that it's a healthy mixture of knowledge and a vague intuition about which way to go," says neurobiologist Monyer, who has been working in Heidelberg since 1975. "But what I personally find perhaps even more important is what the name of the Prize stands for. Alexander von Humboldt is the scientist who has impressed me most in human terms. So for me the Gay-Lussac-Humboldt Prize has a great symbolic significance."

Regardless of such symbolism, the next studies are already in the planning stage. They are aimed at finding out where exactly the newly-discovered gap junctions lie, how they work and what influences regulate their activity. "One thing's for certain," emphasises Hannah Monyer. "The Gay-Lussac-Humboldt Prize has triggered a whole series of further research projects, quite independently of the sums involved." She greatly looks forward to those projects: "When you have a professorship you can't afford to hide behind your desk, you have to 'stay with it'. And in neurobiology that means getting out into the lab yourself if you want to make a go of a project you've set your heart on." Her latest award shows just how right she is …
Heiko P. Wacker

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Hannah Monyer
phone: 06221/562400, fax: 561397
monyer@urz.uni-hd.de

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317
michael.schwarz@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de
http://www.uni-heidelberg.de/presse/index.html


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