Dr. Markus Siegel from the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN) at the University of Tübingen deals with fingerprints, but rather than those used to solve crime, he is interested in fingerprints of nerve cell activity in the brain. Siegel uses these fingerprints to explore the mechanisms that coordinate the interactions between different brain regions, which is what enables humans to learn, perceive and decide. He was recently awarded one of the highly prestigious ERC Starting Grants from the European Research Council for his work.
The ERC Starting Grants aim to support particularly innovative research, i.e. pioneering research, in fields that have the potential of coming up with completely new findings. Up-and-coming researchers with a scientific track record showing great promise in their particular field of research are provided with up to 1.54 million euros for a period of five years.
Dr. Markus Siegel from the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN) at the University of Tübingen was awarded an ERC Starting Grant for his project “SPECFIN – Spectral fingerprints of neuronal interactions”. His research is centred on the neuronal mechanisms that coordinate the interactions between different brain regions and on how cognitive processes emerge. Siegel and his team are studying brain rhythms with the goal of finding out how nerve cells communicate with each other. The scientists hope to be able to identify neuronal mechanisms and assign them to specific frequencies of the brain.
Brain rhythms that are specific for certain fundamental neuronal mechanisms are referred to as fingerprints: for example, it is assumed that a cognitive process, such as decision-making, in the brain is implemented in a set of fundamental mechanisms whose interplay leads to a specific function. Different cognitive processes have been found to be associated with specific rhythms, which is why these rhythms may be key to understanding the neuronal mechanisms underlying cognitive processes. Siegel wants to find the correlation between brain rhythms, fundamental neuronal mechanisms and different cognitive processes.
“Although electroencephalograms (EEG) have been used for many years and have become standard in clinical and scientific investigations, little is yet known about the fundamental neuronal mechanisms that underlie brain rhythms,” Dr. Siegel explained. Siegel carries out experiments on both humans and animals with the goal of understanding the neuronal mechanisms that coordinate these interactions. Over the next few years, Siegel and his team will use EEG and MEG (magnetoencephalography) for recording and comparing brain oscillations of volunteers. The researchers are investigating these spectral fingerprints in the resting human brain and in humans carrying out specific cognitive tasks. The researchers are also doing similar experiments with animals as well as invasive measurements that provide them with insights into neuronal activity on the cellular level. “The long-term, comprehensive EU funds enable us to undertake such a sophisticated scientific project,” Siegel said.
Siegel has been dealing with brain rhythms for many years. What initially sounds rather theoretical has the long-term goal of medical application: “We expect that the results will eventually provide us with a better understanding of neuropsychiatric disorders. Schizophrenia, to name but one example, is characterised by dysfunctional neuronal network interactions as well as by altered brain rhythms. A better understanding of neuronal interactions in the healthy brain would therefore help us to unravel how these interactions are disturbed in the diseased brain,” Siegel explained.
The scientists plan to divide the next five years into several stages. At the end of the five-year funding period, the researchers hope to have established a new language or taxonomy with which they will be able to describe brain function on the level of fundamental neuronal mechanisms. This will therefore lie between the level of individual nerve cells and the psychological level. Siegel is cautiously optimistic: “We will probably only be able to describe this level with many limitations, but I would consider it a great success if we were able to clarify the correlation between fundamental neuronal mechanisms and cognitive processes.”
Further information:Dr. Markus SiegelUniversity of TübingenCentre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN)Otfried-Müller-Str. 2572076 TübingenTel.: +49 (0)7071 29-81200E-mail: markus.siegel(at)uni-tuebingen.de