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Interpreting the Score: Neuronal Polyphony in the Human Brain

Press Release No. 45/2011
21 February 2011
Closing symposium of Collaborative Research Centre 488 from 24 to 26 February 2011

Leading neuroscientists from all over the world will be meeting at Heidelberg University from 24 to 26 February 2011 to discuss the latest research findings produced by the Collaborative Research Centre “Molecular and Cellular Bases of Neural Development” (CRC 488). The crucial concern of the CRC is to understand the way in which highly complex brain functions develop from rudimentary neural networks. Evolutionary and developmental biologists can help to fathom the genesis of neural disorders and develop potential therapies for dealing with them. The conference is the closing symposium of collaborative research centre, which will be finishing up its work at the end of this year after a maximum 12-year period of funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG).

In the beginning is the neural network: Model organisms like the hydra or jellyfish use it to process all the signals impinging on them from their environment. The nerve cells of the network “capture” information, pass it on and process it. For this purpose they collaborate with messenger substances and generate activity patterns that enable the organism to find its way around, feed and reproduce. The brains of more highly developed animals and of "Homo sapiens" consist of billions of such neural networks, which are combined with one another in a variety of ways. The network has become much finer and more versatile but the essential functional principles have remained the same. Even the activity of the genes controlling the neurons has not changed in the course of evolution.

So how do these highly complex structures develop and what is it that regulates their activity? What happens if the circuitry collapses, as is the case with illnesses like dementia and multiple sclerosis? These are the questions the Heidelberg scientists of the collaborative research centre have been grappling with since 2000 in over 20 projects devoted to neural precursor cells, the early development and evolution of the nervous system and axonal path- and goal-finding.

According to Prof. Dr. Jochen Wittbrodt, developmental neurobiologist and coordinator of CRC 488, they have arrived at an understanding of the way nerve cells interact and how they gel to form the circuitry of neural networks. “It has a great deal to do with rhythm and order,” says Prof. Wittbrodt. “Like the instruments in a symphony orchestra, cells and messenger substances perform together in an ordered and modulated manner to produce harmony and guarantee the ideal functioning of the nervous system. But when illnesses occur, dissonance replaces orderly activity.”

The lectures at the symposium “12 Years of Nervous Excitation: The CRC 488 ‘Molecular and Cellular Bases of Neural Development’” begin at 12 noon on Thursday, February 24. The location is the large physics lecture hall, Im Neuenheimer Feld 308. All interested are very welcome to attend, admission is free. To register and/or obtain more detailed information, go to


Prof. Dr. Jochen Wittbrodt (coordinator of CRC 488
Ute Volbehr (administration of CRC 488)
Interdisciplinary Center for Neurosciences (IZN)
SFB “Molecular and Cellular Bases of Neural Development”
phone: +49 6221 548228,

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