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5 December 2003

Prof. Dr. Hannah Monyer Awarded Germany's Biggest Research Prize

Rector Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff congratulated neurobiologist Prof. Monyer on receiving the German Research Council's Leibniz Prize, worth 1.55 million euros—"A fitting token of Professor Monyer's achievements and a great honour for the University of Heidelberg"

Prof. Monyer

Heidelberg neurobiologist Prof. Dr. Hannah Monyer has been awarded Germany's most generously endowed research prize. Today, the principal committee of the German Research Council (DFG) named Prof. Monyer as one of the recipients in the DFG's Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz Programme for the year 2004. In a congratulatory note, the Rector of the University oif Heidelberg, Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff, commented: "The Leibniz Prize for Prof. Monyer is not only a fitting token of her achievements but also a great honour for the University of Heidelberg."

Prof. Dr. Hannah Monyer (46) was born in Romania. She came to Germany in her teens, took her school-leaving exams in Heidelberg and studied medicine at the University of Heidelberg on a grant bestowed on her by the German National Academic Foundation. After her doctoral dissertation and posts as medical assistant at the Children's Psychiatry Department in Mannheim and the Pediatric Hospital in Lübeck, she spent three years working at the lab headed by Prof. Dennis Choi at the Stanford University Medical Center in California on a research grant awarded to her by the German Research Council.

Subsequently she joined the staff of Prof. Peter Seeburg's study group at the Molecular Biology Centre of the University of Heidelberg, receiving her Habilitation from the Faculty of Medicine in 1994. From 1994 she was the holder of the Hermann and Lilly Schilling chair at the Molecular Biology Centre in Heidelberg. From 1996 she headed a group of visiting researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Medical Research. She was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit for her scientific achievements and her ability to make her field of work understandable to the general public. In 1999 she was appointed full professor and head of the Clinical Neurobiology Department at the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Centre and the neurological hospital of the University of Heidelberg.

Hommelhoff: "Professor Monyer's scientific work has always been of supreme quality and has received outstanding international acclaim." Her studies were the first to indicate the different molecular composition of the various NMDA receptors, their functional differences and their distinct, development-dependent expression patterns in different cell populations in the brain. These receptors are key molecules for synaptic plasticity, a cell-biological phenomenon underlying the brain's ability to remember and learn. In collaboration with Dr. Peter Jonas, Prof Monyer was also able to show that glutamate receptors in principal neurones and interneurones differ in their function and structure. To this end, she developed the molecular analysis of single, electrophysiologically characteristic neurones in acute slices of the brain. For the first time ever, this enabled the two researchers to correlate the different composition of glutamate receptors with their different functions and ion permeabilities in different types of cell.

More recently, Prof. Monyer has turned her attention to the understanding of brain functions that enable it to perform more sophisticated tasks, like memory and cognition. She also studies disturbances of these functions, such as those manifesting themselves in neurological disorders. Prof. Monyer has taken a novel and highly promising approach to this issue by studying genetically altered mouse lines for the impact on systemic function made by molecules that play a crucial role in inter-cellular communication in the central nervous system. Here her main interest is in the modulation of GABAergic interneurones, as these orchestrate the activity of ensembles of principal neurones and thus fire synchronous, coordinated activity in the nerve cells of different regions of the brain to achieve representations of the outside world. A token of her success in this venture is the discovery of a hitherto unknown population of interneurones.

The innovative aspect of this approach is the selection of genetically modifiable functions from a prediction of important functional parameters in computer-aided network models.

Functionally important parameters studied by Prof. Monyer on transgenic mice arise from the electrical coupling of interneurones by so-called "gap junctions". Interest in the study of this effect derives both from network models and from theoretical ideas predicting that electrical coupling between interneurones is pivotal for network oscillations. Oscillations of this kind appear in the brain at different frequencies and are regarded as the basis for synchronous activity in both local and remote ensembles of nerve cells and thus for the representation and interpretation of sensory data.

Identification of the fact that the electrical coupling between nerve cells in the adult brain is of functional significance is a finding of major significance. Since the beginning of this century, chemical signal transmission has been considered the main communication mode between neurones. Prof. Monyer has shown (a) that electrical synapses between GABAergic interneurones represent an additional communication mode for this cell population and (b) that electrical coupling stabilises and modulates synchronous network activity.

Prof. Monyer's experimental approach to the understanding of functional parameters for the coupling of neuronal networks by means of transgenic mice is not only original but also highly ambitious. Although theory-supported, not every gene manipulation will lead to a measurably different phenotype. The generation of the mice requires a great deal of time and resources and the measuring of the mice and analysis of the effects on behaviour patterns are frequently unpredictable in terms of the time and work they require.

(We will be happy to supply a photo of Prof. Monyer on request.)

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Hannah Monyer
phone: 06221/562400, fax: 561397

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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