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Mainz neuroscientist Robert Nitsch receives the EU's most highly remunerated research funding award

ERC Advanced Grant for the promotion of cutting-edge research in the field of neuroscience at the Mainz University Medical Center

The European Research Council (ERC) has earmarked some EUR 2.5 million to fund research being conducted by neuroscientist Professor Dr. Robert Nitsch at the Mainz University Medical Center. His work focuses on the role played by so-called bioactive lipids in the brain that assumingly impair signal transmission at cerebral synapses, which act as 'switching stations' in the brain.

Disturbances of this kind to cerebral network homeostasis, i.e., in the balance between inhibition and excitation in the brain, occur for example in people with mental illnesses and epilepsy.

"Understanding the correlations between cause and effect in network homeostasis is potentially the key to successfully treating patients with mental illnesses or epilepsy," said Professor Dr. Robert Nitsch, Director of the Institute of Microscopic Anatomy and Neurobiology at the Mainz University Medical Center. Specifically, Nitsch wants to find out how the signaling pathways of bioactive lipids are controlled and monitored in the brain.

It is thus important to gain insight into the molecular and cellular mechanisms as well as into the structure of the molecules involved. In addition, Nitsch aims to study the functional consequences in the brain caused by changes to these molecules. "Once we have the necessary knowledge, it may be possible to find strategies to help us modify these signaling pathways. Assuming we are successful, it may also be possible to develop pharmaceutical preparations that can be used in people with mental health disorders," said Nitsch, who is also Coordinator of the Research Unit Translational Neurosciences (FTN) at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

The highly promising work that Nitsch has already undertaken jointly with his colleagues at the FTN indicates that this research goal may well be attainable. Pilot studies in humans have demonstrated that brain function is disturbed in the presence of mutation of the genes responsible for encoding modulators of the signaling pathways of bioactive lipids. Such disturbances to network homeostasis, i.e., the balance between inhibition and excitation in the brain, also occur in patients with mental illnesses. According to Nitsch, research into the signaling pathways of bioactive lipids is also highly relevant to understanding cardiovascular disorders and the development of tumors.

"The award of an ERC Advanced Grant to Professor Dr. Robert Nitsch once again demonstrates impressively the success of the appointment policy employed by the Mainz University Medical Center," emphasized the Chief Scientific Officer of the Mainz University Medical Center, Professor Dr. Dr. Reinhard Urban. In 2009, he managed to persuade Nitsch, who was born in Leverkusen, to leave Berlin's Charité University Hospital and to come to work in Mainz.

In November 2010, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz decided to adopt a focused strategic scientific approach to its work in neuroscience and established the Research Unit Translational Neurosciences (FTN). "This achievement is confirmation of the academic prominence enjoyed by Professor Dr. Robert Nitsch in the field of neuroscience," stated Professor Dr. Georg Krausch, President of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. "Moreover, this success also confirms that our strategy of forming scientific and academic research units at our university is bearing fruit. We are pleased this additional funding will enable Professor Dr. Robert Nitsch to systematically continue his research activities and the associated profile building."

ERC Advanced grants are awarded to outstanding researchers to enable them to undertake projects considered to be highly speculative due to their innovative approach but which, because of this innovation, can open up new potential opportunities in the field in question. Only researchers with a proven record of significant accomplishments who have successfully worked at the highest international level for at least ten years are eligible to receive a grant. The only criteria considered by the European Research Council when deciding whether to award a grant are the achievements of the researcher in question and the nature of their research project. An ERC grant thus represents recognition of the individual work of the recipient. The ERC Advanced Grant, the European Union's most prestigious research funding award, is comparable in terms of value to the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Award, which is the most prestigious German research award.

Scientists at JGU, including the Mainz University Medical Center and the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB), have been highly successfully with regard to obtaining sponsorship from the European Research Council (ERC). Since the first round of applications in 2007, they have received 11 research grants from the ERC with a total value of EUR 23 million, consisting of seven Advanced Grants and four Starting Grants for up-and-coming young researchers.

Petra Giegerich | idw
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