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Carolin Hoffrogge
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Success story at MPI continues

Two young scientists from the Max Planck Institutes in Göttingen from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization (MPIDS) receive the Otto Hahn Medal of the Max Planck Society (MPG).

June 12, 2018

On June 13, 2018, the MPG awards the Otto Hahn Medal to Dr. Agostina Palmigiano and Dr. Manuel Schottdorf at their 69th Annual Meeting in Heidelberg. The two physicists completed their doctoral research at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience (BCCN), which is dedicated to modern interdisciplinary research in theoretical neuroscience.
Prof. Fred Wolf, Dr. Agostina Palmigiano, Prof. Theo Geisel, Dr. Manuel Schottdorf and Prof. Walter Stühmer (from left) after the prize ceremony Zoom Image
Prof. Fred Wolf, Dr. Agostina Palmigiano, Prof. Theo Geisel, Dr. Manuel Schottdorf and Prof. Walter Stühmer (from left) after the prize ceremony

Physicist Agostina Palmigiano worked in the group of Prof. Theo Geisel and cooperated with Dr. Demian Battaglia (University of Marseille) and Prof. Fred Wolf. She receives the Otto Hahn Medal for „uncovering the dynamic principles for the flexible switching of the information flow in brain networks“. Physicist Manuel Schottdorf worked in the research group of Prof. Fred Wolf and was also supervised in the experimental part of his work by Prof. Walter Stühmer from the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine. He convinced the jury with his „groundbreaking structure-function studies of neuronal circuits“. The Otto Hahn Medal is an annual award presented by the Max Planck Society to a small selection of its very best doctoral students.

How does the brain switch the information flow of information?

Agostina Palmigiano Zoom Image
Agostina Palmigiano

Numerous areas in the brain are interconnected and information flows from one part to another or not. For example, the flow of information between different brain areas can be selectively switched by the so-called selective attention, depending on which information is task relevant. The underlying mechanisms have so far been largely unclear, since switching can obviously take place in a fraction of a second, while the circuits themselves can only change much slower.

In her doctoral thesis, physicist Agostina Palmigiano investigated the hypothesis that short-term oscillations of brain activity, whose synchronization between brain areas has been known for years, offer a mechanism for this fast and flexible switching. In a mathematical model for three interconnected brain areas, she showed that the information flow between two areas can be preferred or prevented by such oscillatory episodes of brain activity - without altering the circuitry. The key factor was the phase shift, a minimal delay of the oscillations, between the areas. This dynamic principle according to the motto "first come, first served" thus allows flexible switching in fractions of a second without changing the circuits and explains a fundamental mechanism of visual information processing.

A network of living and simulated nerve cells

Manuel Schottdorf Zoom Image
Manuel Schottdorf

Manuel Schottdorf developed the foundations of a synthetic neurobiology of neuronal hybrid circuits, which consist of simulated and living nerve cells and in which key components of the circuit diagram can be artificially manipulated. For the first time, the Göttingen researcher could conduct systematic and experimental studies on the relationship between network structure and network function. To do so he chose the visual system of mammals. Using modern optics, i.e. digital holography, and methods of genetic cell manipulation, so-called optogenetics, he combined a computer that simulated parts of the visual system with a network of living nerve cells in the Petri dish and formed a hybrid circuit. Manuel Schottdorf was able to break down how specific pre-processing from the eye to the brain and processing in the brain contribute to information processing. He discovered how the preference for aspects of a visual scene can arise only through the interaction of nerve cells. His work is the basis for a synthetic approach in brain research and considerably extends the range of questions to which science can experimentally find an answer.

MPIDS doctoral students very successful at Otto Hahn Medals

In the past decade, the Otto Hahn Medal was awarded to eleven doctoral candidates of the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, eight of whom were doctoral students of the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neurosciences in Göttingen. Theo Geisel, founding director of the BCCN Göttingen and emeritus director of the Department of Nonlinear Dynamics at MPIDS is pleased about the great success of the two Bernstein doctoral students this year. „We recognized well in advance that the decoding of the function of neuronal circuits will be carried out by a new generation of scientists who are biologically competent and who are not afraid of mathematical analyses. The success with eight Otto Hahn medals for our Bernstein doctoral candidates over the last ten years shows that this is the right approach for a future-oriented interdisciplinary field that is now firmly established in a Campus Institute for Dynamics of Biological Networks under the direction of Fred Wolf“.

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