In shape for the German Excellence Strategy competition

28 July 2016

The Rhine-Main Neuroscience Network (rmn²) looks back on five successful years and is now preparing to meet the challenges of the next half decade. rmn² is expanding and planning to prove its scientific strength in the upcoming Excellence Strategy competition. Some 300 neuroscientists based in the Rhine-Main region came together for a three-day symposium during which they exchanged views, listened to presentations given by eminent colleagues, and drew up plans for the future.

"During the first five years, we put ourselves on the map of German Neurosciences," says Professor Jochen Roeper. "We succeeded in our main focus to establish new collaborative research centers in the Neurosciences funded by the German Research Foundation. We hoped that the initial idea of bringing neuroscience together in the region would grow into something exciting and productive – and I'm pleased to say that this has happened. It is now time for us to initiate the next phase!"

Professor Jochen Roeper, Director of the Institute of Neurophysiology at Goethe University Frankfurt and current speaker of the Rhine-Main Neuroscience Network, is sitting in the courtyard of a youth hostel above the picturesque town of Oberwesel. The view over the Rhine is breathtaking, but it is little more than a sideshow attraction for those attending the three-day meeting. The first rmn² symposium was held here in 2010. And it is at this fourth Biennial Meeting that its future course is to be determined.

The history of a network

The first presentations have already been held. Professor Herbert Zimmerman of the Interdisciplinary Center for Neuroscience Frankfurt (ICNF) has just provided an historical overview on the background and history of the Rhine-Main Neuroscience Network. As a founder of both the rmn² network and its Frankfurt predecessor, he reminisced about the ups and downs of the Neurosciences in Frankfurt. In the 1990s, so Professor Zimmermann, a low point was reached, when important collaborative research centers (CRCs) were running out of steam and there seemed to be nothing new in sight.

Indeed, Mainz was going through a something similar phase at the same time. It took the arrival of Professors Frauke Zipp and Robert Nitsch to propose the idea of starting up a pioneering collaborative project beyond state borders – based on their successful Neurocure Initiative in Berlin. They proposed that various departments and institutes of the two universities should come together to form the Rhine-Main Neuroscience Network." Professor Robert Nitsch thought that the unleashed synergies would help us to grow substantially. It was for that reason that we decided to include the squared symbol in our name."

The plan did work. In the network's brief history, it has already succeeded to establish three CRCs funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Today both the universities in Frankfurt and Mainz and their medical centers collaborate under the aegis of the rmn² network. Eight other partners are also involved, including three Max Planck Institutes.

Flexible and stable

As might be expected in view of its wide range of collaborations, the network is involved in many neuroscience-related fields. With an eye to the upcoming Excellence Strategy competition, however, Professor Jochen Roeper places the emphasis on the need for a unified overarching theme for rmn².

"Our brains are like ships on the high seas that need both to function and to be repaired at the same time without ever docking in a safe harbor. So, how does this highly complex organ cope? How do neuronal networks manage to be both stable and flexible at the same time, to maintain function but also change and learn while constantly replacing all parts and even defend themselves against aging and disease? Moreover, these aspects need to be considered at many levels and various scales of resolution. For example, how do certain neurons decide to use their genome in a selective manner? How do nerve cells combine to form multiple local networks? And how do these microcircuits interact over long distances connected by nerve fibers to create higher brain functions?"

To answers these fundamental questions, theoretical, computational, and experimental rmn² neuroscientists need to collaborate. For example, the most recent rmn² CRC, led by Professor Beat Lutz from Mainz University, aims to understand the neurobiological mechanisms of resilience, both in humans and model organisms. Resilience is an essential individual capacity to deal with extremely challenging situations as well as with day-to-day stress, to cope in a flexible manner in order to maintain mental health. The effort is complemented by the recently founded German Resilience Center (DRZ).

TU Darmstadt joins the team

The questions cited above are also relevant when it comes to considering chronic brain diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS). "What happens initially in MS is that nerve fibers are damaged and neural network communications are challenged. We are putting this disease in focus at one of our collaborative research centers that has just had its funding extended for four more years by the German Research Foundation." Roeper talks about a whole series of other brain diseases, including schizophrenia and epilepsy, where neural network functions are also challenged."

The Rhine-Main Neuroscience Network is putting together a coordinated program, led by Professor Amparo Acker-Palmer, to cover the key problem of neural network stability and flexibility in health and disease. The hope is that it will prove successful in the Excellence Strategy competition of the German federal and state governments to promote top-level research. "Our work is going to be exciting, fascinating, and innovative," says Roeper. "But we have to make sure we construct a coherent research program covering the rich breadth of our research."

rmn² is growing further. Technische Universität Darmstadt will join as a new partner, thus bringing together all three universities of the Rhine-Main Universities alliance. "Darmstadt's technological expertise will be a great asset. With several new professorships, they are in the process of developing a strong Cognitive Sciences program, which also opens the way to bring the principles of neural network function outside the brain into our technological world," adds Roeper.

The Rhine-Main beacon

The objective of the rmn² network is to continue to shape and extend the neuroscience landscape in the Rhine-Main region, to be competitive with similar centers such as Berlin and Munich. "We have created our own beacon that attracts young researchers and provides them with excellent opportunities," emphasizes Roeper. "When it comes down to it, we want to do more than just win over new colleagues. We need to make sure we can keep our young talents in the Rhine-Main area. And the more successful they are, the more interesting their work becomes for our competitors. This means we need to offer them attractive career-plan including establishing tenure-track options in the region by collaboration between, for example, universities and Max Planck Institutes."

The network is now entering the next major phase with the Excellence Strategy competition just around the corner, TU Darmstadt joining the network, and the current objective to define new goals. The Rhine-Main Neuroscience Network is not unlike the metaphorical ship Roeper mentioned – constantly under repair, flexible yet stable. The coordinator of rmn² heads back into the main hall of the youth hostel, which is serving as the conference venue. There is much more to be discussed in the coming days.