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“The GSN has already made its mark”

München, 11/21/2016

LMU‘s Graduate School of Systemic Neurosciences, which is now 10 years old, focuses on a single issue: How does the brain work? Doctoral students from all over the world are seeking answers to this immensely complicated question.

International Cooks on Campus Night at the GSN

The Mongolian gerbil must localize sounds in double-quick time, for its very survival depends on its ability to process acoustic information. Acoustic signals are picked up by both ears, but they reach the ipsilateral ear (the one closer to the sound source) a few microseconds earlier than the contralateral organ. Moreover, activation of the sensory neurons in the ipsilateral ear results in the inhibition of their counterparts in the contralateral ear. The Australian neurobiologist Kiri Couchman is seeking the basis for this mechanism by probing the operation of the synapses, the junctional structures that determine whether transmission of the nerve impulse to the next cell in the circuit is promoted or prevented. She has already determined that inhibition/activation of a very small number of nerve fibers is sufficient to provoke strong inhibition/activation of the post-synaptic neuron in the circuit.

Couchman did her doctoral research as a member of the Graduate School of Systemic Neurosciences (GSN-LMU), which is 10 years old this month. The investigation of brain function requires an interdisciplinary approach, and the graduate students and their mentors in the GSN come from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from philosophy to biochemistry and biophysics. Neurobiologist Couchman (32) was particularly struck by the emphasis placed on interdisciplinarity at the GSN, which is perhaps not surprising when one considers that she herself studied Philosophy. “In our regular lectures on the various disciplines, we gained fascinating insights and became acquainted with the intriguing issues involved. We learned about questions and fields that we would never have been exposed to if we had focused solely on our own specific area of interest.” She also remembers being very impressed by the infrastructure available in Munich. Having spent 4 years at the GSN and earned her doctorate there, she now works at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.

“The GSN holds the whole network together“
The Bavarian capital is a force to be reckoned with in the neurosciences, and is home to an array of institutions -- including the GSN -- that is unique in Germany. These include the Bernstein Center for Computational Neurosciences Munich, the Max Planck Institutes for Neurobiology, Ornithology and Psychiatry, several Collaborative Research Centers in the field and the Helmholtz Zentrum München. All in all, this network offers an exceptional range of research expertise, which is an ideal basis for the training and education of highly talented young investigators. “The GSN is the glue that holds this network together,” says Benedikt Grothe, neurobiology professor and designated speaker for the Graduate School. For the doctoral students who are members of the GSN work in the various affiliated institutions, and as good communicators, they serve to bind the network together, he adds. And that will not change in the coming years, he says, as the School’s future is assured beyond the end of the Excellence Initiative in 2017.

At all events, over the past decade the School has built up an enviable international reputation: Applications from highly qualified candidates from around the world testify to the level of interest in postgraduate studies at the GSN, and the proportion of doctoral students from English-speaking countries has grown significantly. In addition, the numbers of proposals for collaborative ventures received has progressively increased. “We now have to decline most of these requests,” Grothe says. He focuses in this regard on carefully selected partnerships – with Harvard University, for instance, or the University of Queensland in Brisbane. “We are trying to limit the number of cooperations we enter into, although we of course remain open to offers. Our postdocs can work anywhere in the world.”

Dr. Kiri Couchman, now based in Paris, is one such postdoc. She recalls with affection the friendships she made during her time at the GSN, which have persisted since she left Munich. “We all got on very well together – both in our own labs and at the weekly meetings with all the other graduate students. – And these contacts are still very much alive.” One other feature which makes the School so attractive to graduate students from abroad is its structural independence. The School confers its own Ph.D. degrees, and this clearly distinguishes it from thematically related establishments elsewhere in Germany.

The GSN-LMU is undoubtedly a success story, although Benedikt Grothe admits that this was not always so: “At the outset, we seriously underestimated the scale of what we were getting ourselves into.” Meanwhile, however, alterations in the management of the GSN and in the supervision of its PhD students have corrected the consequences of the initial misjudgments, he adds. Grothe believes that the School is now on an even keel, and in particular he sees it as an important means of attracting first-rate neuroscientists to the city on the Isar. In light of the healthcare challenges posed by aging populations, the need for breakthroughs in neurobiology is becoming ever more urgent.