For Research. For Berlin.

Einstein-Professor Dietmar Schmitz

»Like cerebral detective work«

The further I go in brain research, the more I feel a certain sense of awe. When I am sitting in an experiment, watching brain cells generate their rhythms, I often wonder: How is that possible? What is making that happen? Some days, I think I will never be able to understand it. But most days are not like that. It’s clear that we will not figure out every last detail, but small breakthroughs are very motivating in my daily work. The sum of many small observations from numerous laboratories will ultimately help brain research advance in its major questions.

I am fascinated by the enormous complexity and plasticity of the brain. Far from being static, synapses under- go continuous changes, enabling us to store the new information that we receive. On the one hand, minor changes can lead to serious disorders; on the other hand, the brain is very adept at compensating major injuries. We are still not completely clear about the details of how that is possible. That’s one of the many questions raised by the human brain.

Our research group investigates how brain cells communicate with each other and how learning and memory work. When neurological and psychiatric disorders are present, these processes are often impaired – for example with epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, autism, or schizophrenia. We try to understand the underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms to develop better diagnostics and therapies. A few years ago, we were able to discover how epilepsy damages nerve cells. Since then, we have developed concepts to try to reverse this disorder.

For a long time, I concentrated on basic research, mainly because I found it frustrating that we were making little progress in clinical applications in neuropsychiatry. Now, I think that we can achieve a great deal. The technology has undergone significant changes in recent years and large research associations like our Cluster of Excellence NeuroCure or the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases enable in-depth basic research with close ties to clinical applications.

Our research often reminds me of detective work. We read a lot and create hypotheses which we test and analyse in experiments. But the brain is often too complex for our hypotheses. Therefore, it is extremely important to follow experiments closely and be precise about our observations. Then we can be open to unexpected results. That’s the approach I have used to discern interesting phenomena that have led to novel insights on brain functions.

Credits: Pablo Castagnola