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14 March 2001

Research Magazine "Ruperto Carola 1/2001": Hope for Alzheimer Patients

New research projects from the University of Heidelberg in the latest issue — Title story by Tobias Hartmann and Konrad Bayreuther of the Molecular Biology Centre on new hope for Alzheimer patients — Other topics: Preventing child violence — Rites and rituals: a cross-cultural comparison — How 200 billion neurons make a brain — A research project on the economics of health in Burkina Faso — Long-term collaborative research project "Controlling Tropical Diseases"

Title page Ruperto Carola 1/2001

Upward of a certain age, Alzheimer's disease can strike at any time. In "Ruperto Carola 1/2001", the latest issue of the University of Heidelberg's research magazine, the title story is dedicated to this severest disorder of the human brain, which has hitherto resisted all attempts to cure it. Scientists engaged in basic research have now come up with new insights justifying hopes for improved therapy and possibly even preventive inoculation or remedies. Tobias Hartmann and Konrad Bayreuther of the Molecular Biology Centre chart the state of play in Alzheimer research, report on new ideas about how best to stem the course of the disease, and list preventive measures. Other topics in the magazine range from the prevention of child violence to rites and rituals in different cultures. An article on developmental biology tells us how 200 billion neurons link up to form a brain. The magazine also features a research project on the economics of health in Burkina Faso and the long-term collaborative research project "Controlling Tropical Diseases".

Vice-Rector Prof. Dr. Heinz Horner criticises a hardy perennial in the debate on higher-education policy — "We don't need any perks to perk us up"

In the Editorial, Heidelberg University's Vice-Rector for research, Prof. Dr. Heinz Horner, takes a critical look at a "hardy perennial" in the debate on higher-education policy, "increasing efficiency via performance-oriented resource allocation". There has been no shortage of proposals in this connection. Many approaches have been tried and many discontinued. So why go into it all again? "The fact is that we're immediately affected. Starting a year back, part of the financial resources from the state government is being awarded on the basis of a so-called output index. And the new University Law also stipulates that the distribution of resources within universities should also be geared to output criteria."

A number of years back, Horner recalls, the University of Heidelberg developed a reform project "Impulse" for the identification of "output" in teaching and research, complete with a system for taking this into account in the budgetary allocations for individual departments. At present, some 8 million marks per year for student workers are being distributed in line with these provisions. But now the debate has taken a new turn, extending to entire department budgets including staff costs. But what does "performance" mean in the university context? How can it be identified and quantified in terms of output? What are the real aims behind such an approach?

The approach to selecting and evaluating output criteria, Horner contends, cannot be divorced from the intentions behind it. "This is the crucial point. What do we want to achieve? Higher efficiency, more competition, greater incentives — and hence more external funding?" This, says Horner, can surely not be all, given that "a university is still a place dedicated to the cultivation of science and scholarship. Creativity and scientific inquiry are not things one can improve with financial incentives. The motivation to address and resolve new research issues is already there. We do not need perks to perk us up."

"...and then he just kicked her in the shins."
The first feature article in the new issue of "Ruperto Carola" deals with the prevention of violence in childhood. Violence is something we need to combat with "everything in our power". "Power" as defined by Hannah Arendt is a function of the human capacity for joining forces and acting in concert with others. As she sees it, power is never invested in individuals but is a group phenomenon. As such it will only exist as long as the respective group maintains its cohesion. Manfred Cierpka of the Psychosomatic Hospital of the University of Heidelberg discusses how power in this sense can be pitted against various manifestations of destructive violence.

Rites and rituals: a cross-cultural comparison
In human societies both ancient and modern, marriage and burial are highly formalised matters, many people pray, make sacrifices, go on pilgrimages, worship gods or attend church services, celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and the passing of exams. Under the heading "Ritual Dynamics", an interdisciplinary research team at the University of Heidelberg is examining the invention, the changing guises and the impact of rituals in various cultures. In the next article, team spokesman Dietrich Hardt describes the research venture and opens some interesting perspectives on the multitude of different forms ritual activity and behaviour can take. The project was recently accepted as one of the "official contributions to the United Nations International Year of Cross-Cultural Dialogue".

Pathfinders in the neuronal network
The human brain consists of some 200 billion nerve cells. During embryonic development all these cells have to link up to form a thinking, feeling, learning and regulating whole out of what would otherwise be an amorphous mass. Just how this "wiring" process takes place is one of the exciting issues addressed by the Developmental Biology Research Group at the Zoological Institute of the University of Heidelberg. For "Ruperto Carola", group leader Elisabeth Pollerberg describes how neurons form their (usually long) extensions, how they get their bearings and find the right paths, and what it is that enables them to execute their impressive "turning manoeuvres".

Poor and sick — rich and healthy?
Scientists from the long-term collaborative research project "Controlling Tropical Disease" are engaged in on-the-spot investigation with a view to closing a major information gap. In a selected region of West Africa they are amassing precise and reliable data on illness incidence and mortality. Christoph M. Schmidt and Ralph Würthwein of the Alfred Weber Institute of Heidelberg University describe the background to this ambitious project and the actual work being done in Nouna, a small town in the north-west of Burkina Faso.

"Germs travel without a visa"
Helped by sporadic feverish bouts of media coverage, infectious diseases still have the potential to shake up the "developed" world from time to time. In tropical countries they are an ever-present threat. Accounting for about a third of all deaths, they are the biggest single mortality factor in those areas. It is this fact that gives the new Heidelberg long-term collaborative research project "Controlling Tropical Diseases" its specific high-relevance profile. Heidelberg University's Press Officer Michael Schwarz interviews Rainer Sauerborn, director of the Tropical Hygiene Department of the University Hospital Complex and one of the project spokesmen, on the tasks and aims of the undertaking.

In the "News and Views" section, students' dean Prof. Horst Seller asks how external evaluations might improve curricula design in Heidelberg's medical faculty. In the "Young Scientists Report" column, Michael Stausberg writes on religious history and the study of ritual. The magazine closes with the permanent column "News from the Stiftung Universität Heidelberg Foundation".

"Ruperto Carola" is published by Universitätsverlag C. Winter Heidelberg GmbH. Single copies cost DM 10,- plus postage (DM 5,- for students). Like the special support subscription (DM 60,- for four issues) they can be ordered from Pressestelle der Universität Heidelberg, Postfach 105760, D-69047 Heidelberg. Gratis copies of earlier issues are available for inspection in the foyer of the Old University (Grabengasse 1).

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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Updated: 20.03.2001


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