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25 March 2002

Research Magazine "Ruperto Carola 1/2002": Pain Memory

New research projects from the University of Heidelberg — Title story by Herta Flor: Can pain memory be deleted? — Other topics: Everyday life in ancient Aphrodisias — Genetic striptease for insurance cover? — Molecules on the cell trip — Land and literature — Biomolecular machines

Chronic pain and phantom pain following amputation are among the most challenging afflictions modern medicine is called upon to deal with. Recent pain research has established that the torments patients go through are bound up with the formation of a pain memory in the central nervous system. This find has opened up new avenues to explore in effectively combating the debilitating misery of unremitting pain. In the new edition of Heidelberg University's research magazine "Ruperto Carola" (1/2002), Herta Flor of the Central Institute of Mental Health acquaints readers with the latest research news in this sector and describes a therapeutic procedure she and her staff have elaborated. For the first time it holds out serious prospects of deleting existing pain memory and thus preventing phantom pain. Other topics in the magazine range from ancient graffiti and the regional perspective on literary history (with reference to medieval Austria) to "Genetic Knowledge: the Legal Angle", "Molecules on the Cell Trip" and "Biomolecular Machines".

Rector Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff outlines the research policy pursued by the new Rectorate

In the Editorial, Rector Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff outlines the new Rectorate's plans with regard to research policy. "The University of Heidelberg is a full-scale, research-oriented university with a broad range of subjects from Assyriology to zoology. In terms of profile, its aim — now and in future — is to promulgate the unity of research and teaching in such a way that all members of the University, and notably the students, can experience it as a genuine reality."

In many fields, Hommelhoff continues, the University's scientists, scholars, research networks and research institutions have achieved a reputation for outstanding excellence at both the national and international level. "This has to be maintained and enhanced," not least because it is an integral part of the University's identity. But another reason why maintaining and enhancing excellence is so imperative is that, with competition between institutions of higher learning getting fiercer all the time, supreme quality in research and teaching is the only way of assuring the influx of the necessary resources from the state and from external funding. "Here," Hommelhoff warns, "Heidelberg displays some surprising deficits at the moment."

The Rector then takes a closer look at the external funding situation within the University. In some areas of the humanities and the social sciences, the number of projects receiving such financial assistance is "noticeably below average" on the international — and in some cases on the national — scale. The conclusion from this is that the academic excellence achieved both in the humanities and the social sciences on the one hand and the natural sciences on the other must be translated into projects of a kind that make them eligible for financial support from outside. This needs to be done quickly and on a broad scale, and the Rectorate intends to take the action required to promote this.

In general, Hommelhoff says in his summing-up, the present prospects of preserving Heidelberg as a full-scale, research-oriented university are very good indeed. Essential in this connection is to protect the university from the fashionable but fateful trend towards sacrificing the smaller departments (notably in the humanities) to the spurious claims of an exclusively "modernist" view of research and learning. "But this requires major efforts on the part of all members of the University."

Messages from Aphrodisias

Much like present-day aerosol sprayers, the people of late antiquity committed the testimonies of their everyday concerns to the walls of public buildings, to pillars and almost any other conspicuous bit of masonry. An especially large number of graffiti have come down to us in the town of Aphrodisias in Asia minor, which was once a flourishing urban centre. Greek-born Angelos Chaniotis, director of the Ancient History Department, has been studying the written legacy of the citizens of Aphrodisias since 1995. His article in the new issue of "Ruperto Carola" gives a graphic impression of how important even apparently insignificant mural messages can be in fleshing out the image we have of everyday life in antiquity. Graffiti are a direct reflection of something that other historical sources frequently pass over in silence: the concerns and feelings of ordinary people.

Genetic Striptease for Insurance Cover?

The possibility of using genetic analysis to predict certain illnesses poses a number of central questions. One of them is whether and to what extent companies offering health and life insurance should be allowed to make the conclusion of contracts with prospective clients conditional upon consent to genetic screening. Jochen Taupitz of the Institute of German, European and International Medical Law, Health Legislation and Bioethics of the Universities of Heidelberg and Mannheim gives an in-depth analysis of the issue and comes to an unexpected conclusion.

Molecules on the cell trip

In living cells the traffic density is enormous. On minuscule rails, freight trains full of precious cargo whiz along unerringly to their destinations, pulled by locomotives specially designed for short-, medium- or long-distance travel. Ralf-Peter Jansen of Heidelberg University's Molecular Biology Centre takes us along on the exciting journey of a particularly important and prominent passenger: messenger RNA. This molecule's mission is to convey messages from the control centre — the cell nucleus — to protein production sites in the cell plasma. Perfect planning of the trip is of crucial importance for the life of the cell and the organism. Errors (say, an invalid ticket) can have fateful consequences.

Land and literature: the regional perspective

Slowly but surely, the existing Europe of the nations is being joined by a Europe of the regions, a concept that is demonstrably very much the older of the two. To re-establish it in our cultural memories, literary studies scholars from the University of Heidelberg have collected and studied veritable mountains of medieval texts from Austria, ranging from love songs to theological treatises. The result is a regional compilation worthy to stand alongside the customary national histories of literature. In this context it is possible for the first time to weave together historical threads spun separately by different disciplines. Fritz Peter Knapp of the Department of Germanic Studies describes the ambitious project and draws on examples to illustrate the kind of literary and cultural landscape that presented itself to the eye of the educated medieval beholder in that region.

"Minute miracles": biomolecular machines

"Biomolecular machines" are tiny miracles of nature only a few hundred millionths of a millimetre in size. A new research network initiative involving scientists from the University of Heidelberg and many other research groups from the Rhine-Neckar "Bio-Region" is dedicated to the close study of these minuscule prodigies. The objective is quantitative analysis and modelling of "biomolecular machines" outside the cell and in the living cell itself. Of central importance in this enterprise are new methods of light optical analysis and scientific computing. In an interview conducted by Michael Schwarz, research coordinator Christoph Cremer of Heidelberg University's Kirchhoff Institute of Physics gives a graphic description of the visions inspiring the scientists involved and the potential practical applications.

In the "News and Views" section, conflicting opinions on the institution of junior professors strike sparks off one another. The magazine is rounded off by a rundown on the best-endowed new externally funded research projects. "Ruperto Carola" is published by Universitätsverlag C. Winter Heidelberg GmbH. Single copies cost EUR 5 plus postage (EUR 2.50 for students). Like the special support subscription (EUR 30 for four issues), they can be ordered from Pressestelle der Universität Heidelberg, Postfach 10 57 60, D-69047 Heidelberg. Gratis copies of earlier issues are available in the foyer of the Old University (Grabengasse 1). For more information and the complete articles of earlier issues of "Ruperto Carola" (in German) go to:

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: 26.03.2002


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