Interdisciplinary Center for Neurosciences (IZN)Concept

Modern neuroscience research: aims and challenges

Neuroscience has emerged as a pivotal discipline in fundamental biomedical research, playing a critical role not only in advancing our understanding of the human body but also in shaping the future of clinical medicine. With global shifts in living conditions and a rise in life expectancy, there has been a notable surge in neurological and psychiatric disorders, imposing significant societal burdens. Whether addressing stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression, addiction, or any other of a wealth of neurological and psychiatric disorders, there is a consensus internationally that tackling the development of causally-oriented therapies for these ailments requires a concerted effort bridging fundamental research with clinical practice. Among the challenges faced in the development of such therapies arises the use of multi-omics approaches to obtain quantitative and nearly simultaneous analyses of dynamic alterations within extensive molecular and cellular networks. Accordingly, to achieve its aims, modern neuroscience must be able to leverage knowledge gained from classical experimental approaches with insights from theoretical biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, scientific computing, modeling, and bioinformatics. We cannot expect that normal and disturbed brain function will be explained without substantial contributions from these sectors of science.

Neurosciences in Heidelberg and Mannheim

Without question, the Heidelberg/Mannheim area has been and continues to be a stronghold of neuroscience research in Europe. The neuroscience community, composed of research groups at Heidelberg University, the Medical Faculty Heidelberg, Heidelberg University Hospital, the German Cancer Research Center, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the Central Institute of Mental Health, and the Medical Faculty Mannheim, occupies top rankings internationally, not only qualitatively but also quantitatively. Publications in top-ranking journals, sponsorship attracted from external sources, and  distinctions bestowed on outstanding personalities active in research all bear witness to the high-caliber of scientific achievements borne by neuroscientists in Heidelberg and Mannheim. Moreover, joint ventures between research groups with interests in fundamental neurobiological research and local pharmaceutical giants or small- and mid-size biotechnological enterprises in the Heidelberg-Mannheim-Ludwigshafen region emphasize the links between the neuroscience research within the IZN and its applications.

The first collaborative research centre (Sonderforschungsbereich, SFB) in the neurosciences with a molecular orientation was founded in the mid-1980s with CRC317, Molecular biology of neural mechanisms and interactions, which was based in the University and which marked the new direction neurosciences were set to take in Germany. In addition to CRC317, several research groups were founded with funding granted by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), as well as the postgraduate course on Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology, and major projects supported by the BMBF (German Federal Ministry for Education and Research), including the BioRegio and BioFuture programs. These research directions were further consolidated by the restructuring of the Institute of Neurobiology as an independent department, the establishment of a research emphasis in neurobiology at the ZMBH (Heidelberg Centre for Molecular Biology), and the establishment of the Schilling Chair of Clinical Neurobiology. The later establishment of CRC488, Molecular and cellular bases of neural developmental processes in 2000 was a considerable boost for developmental neurobiology in Heidelberg, which would be consolidated further by the creation of a C4 Chair in Developmental Neurobiology within the Faculty of Biosciences and the application to implement a postgraduate course of study entitled Processes of neural developmental and degeneration. Today, the neurosciences in Heidelberg and Mannheim continue to thrive, with translational research playing a central role in the local neuroscience landscape. Accordingly, collaborative initiatives such as CRC1158 (From nociception to chronic pain; spokesperson Rohini Kuner) and CRC1389 (Understanding and targeting resistance in glioblastoma; spokesperson Wolfgang Wick) as well as a DFG research group on new therapeutic strategies against glutamate neurotoxicity (concept outline submitted) originate mainly from discussions and interactions within the IZN. 

Neuroscience Research at the IZN: Looking forward

The Interdisciplinary Center for Neurosciences (IZN) at Heidelberg University was founded in 2000 as a university center and research network to bundle the basic neuroscience research that is uniquely concentrated in the Heidelberg/Mannheim area with applied and clinical neuroscience research being conducted across its varied faculties and institutions. The IZN currently unites 63 research groups, including 13 junior research groups. Scientists who are accepted as IZN Investigators are characterized by regular publications in internationally visible neuroscience journals and by public, peer-reviewed third-party funding. The IZN provides neuroscientists in the Heidelberg/Mannheim area with a platform that mediates and supports cooperation at all relevant levels: the stimulation and coordination of collaborative initiatives, the mediation of technology transfers, the joint use of specialized equipment and techniques, and the comprehensive training and promotion of young scientists. 

At present, the following five key topics are regarded and promoted as crystallization points for future-oriented and highly innovative collaborative projects within the IZN: 1) Neurodegeneration, Neuroinflammation, and Chronic Pain; 2) Neuronal Ensembles, Neuroinformatics, and Cognitive Functions; 3) Neuronal Stem Cells, Brain Organoids, and Tissue Engineering; 4) Drug Discovery and Therapy Development; and 5) Cancer Neuroscience. These foci draw on medium- and long-term research strengths that have been identified through collaborative projects and/or internationally leading personalities, are integrated into local collaborations, and will be dynamically adapted to facilitate further development in other future topics with a particular focus on human physiology and clinical issues. The translational focus areas 1, 4, and 5 in particular structurally reinforce the orientation within the IZN towards the development of new therapeutic strategies and should be the starting point for further collaborative initiatives such as the currently funded CRC1158 and CRC1389.

Pursuit of Synergies within the IZN

  1. Scientific Interaction.  Establishment of independent working groups of manageable size and with greater emphasis on performance justifies expectations of more competition and scientific interaction and therefore of high achievement.
  2. Young Scientists.  Continued recruitment of independent working groups headed by promising young scientists will extend the range of research topics in neurosciences in Heidelberg and make a substantial contribution to ensuring security of supply of university teachers for the subjects concerned in years to come.
  3. Central Service Units.  The establishment of central service units that use highly specialized methods, requiring high levels of financial investment and that can no longer be supported by individual institutes, will be made considerably easier by the pooling of resources. 
  4. Networking of Fundamental Research and Clinical Medicine.  The integration of fundamental neurobiological research and clinical neurobiology that has already been started cannot be realized except within a structure such as the IZN.
  5. Networking of the Neurosciences with Sectors bordering on Physics, Chemistry and Scientific Computing. Quantitative analysis of the momentum of molecular and cellular processes, which is necessary for the explanation of higher brain functions, cannot be achieved without contributions from mathematics, physics and chemistry.