Neuroscience is one of the most productive and exciting fields of research. „When we founded the Federation of Neuroscientific Societies 20 years ago, there was scepticism,“ recalls Prof. Dr. Helmut Kettenmann, spokesman of the German Neuroscientific Society on the Executive Committee of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS), which helped to promote unification of neuroscience. The first forum of the newly formed union, which also took place 20 years ago in Berlin, was attended by 2000 scientists. Since then, the figures at the two-year meeting have risen continuously. Now the Berlin meeting with more than 7000 researchers sets a new record. “European“ is no longer true either: the forum has become international with participants from 77 countries. Around 5000 contributions show the entire spectrum of the current brain research landscape and its focal points.
Neuroscientists are increasingly able to use modern methods to better investigate the brain, whose growth laid the foundation for Homo sapiens‘ cultural and technical achievements five million years ago. Progress in recent years has led to the use of special microscopes. So-called reporter molecules emit coloured signals so that scientists can watch the cells and molecules at work. „Our modern methods and concepts take us to a new level,“ says Prof. Dr. Hartmut Kettenmann, spokesman of the German Neurosciences Society on the Executive Committee of the Association of European Neurosciences Societies (FENS). „We can study behaviour by investigating molecular and cellular events and thus, for the first time, understand very precisely what happens in learning processes, for example.
More attention is now also being paid to glial cells. Although there are as many glial cells in the brain as there are neurons, this cell group has received little attention in research. They were regarded as supporting tissue for the „important“ neurons. „We now know the functions of the different types of glial cells very well,“ said Professor Kettenmann, investigating their role in the development of certain brain tumours, so-called glioblastomas. „We have found that the microglia cells, the macrophages of the brain’s immune system, are reprogrammed by the tumour cells into cells that promote tumour growth: they help the malignant cells to penetrate the surrounding healthy tissue.
The researchers also know more about genes and processes that play a role in the development of diseases. Findings from basic research and concepts derived from it have improved the treatment of multiple sclerosis in recent years. However, Professor Kettenmann admits that new insights from laboratories cannot yet be translated into better treatments for other diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Many drugs that cure sick mice fail in clinical trials on patients.
Therefore, the neuroscientists have great hopes for new models that expand the conventional spectrum – cell cultures, tissue sections and rodents. Above all, so-called organoids, organ-like microstructures up to four millimetres in size, which grow in laboratory dishes.These so-called mini-brains are based, for example, on human pluripotent stem cells that differentiate and organise themselves. Depending on the selected growth conditions, models of different brain regions are created: from the cerebrum, midbrain and cerebellum to the retina of the human eye. The size is still limited to two to three million cells – the model consists of 100 billion cells. But there are already attempts to overcome these limits. However, like his colleagues, in no way is Professor Kettenmann advocating abandoning the established models: „We need a broad range of systems that complement each other.
When the European neuroscientific societies came together 20 years ago, the declared aim was to work for better cooperation between the various disciplines and not also for better promotion of research. Professor Kettenmann knows that both have been successful. „The collaboration between basic researchers and clinicians has improved significantly and we are working very closely together.“ The neuroscientists are also acknowledging the financial support. In Germany, the German government is funding 770 neuroscience projects from basic and clinical research with a total of 560 million euros, which will run for several years. This year, 55 million euros will be invested in such projects. In addition, 180 million euros are spent annually by the federal and state governments in institutes and research centres in the field of neurosciences. Between 2015 and 2017, the German Research Foundation also funded a total of 2706 projects with 518 million euros. Last year 1752 projects were supported with 175.6 million euros.
The European Commission provided comprehensive support for brain research in the 7th Framework Programme. Brain Research was finally and rightly considered a priority to be endowed with the necessary, targeted financial resources: more than EUR 3,1 billion has been dedicated to brain-related research between 2007 and 2015, funding 1931 projects.
Elaine Snell, Snell Communications Ltd, London UK (English language)
tel: +44 (0)207 738 0424 or mobile +44 (0)7973 953794 email: Elaine@snell-communications.net
Barbara Ritzert, ProScience Communications, Pöcking, Germany (German language)
tel: +49 8157 9397-0 or mobile +49 151 12043311 email: email@example.com
Notes to Editors
Prof. Dr. Helmut Kettenmann, Zelluläre Neurowissenschaften, Max-Delbrück-Centrum Berlin