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Michael Frotscher - "Creativity is of great importance to me"

According to Professor Michael Frotscher from the University of Freiburg, German research does not lack money or good researchers; what it lacks most is time. Researchers in leading positions have to deal with huge amounts of administrative work, reducing the time they can spend on creative inspiration. Frotscher thrives on creative challenges. He actually fled from the former East Germany because he could not develop his ideas freely during his postdoctoral training. The Hertie Foundation has now granted him a senior research professorship for the neurosciences which frees him from administrative obligations. From now on, Frotscher will be able to concentrate fully on elucidating the puzzles of the brain.

Prof. Dr. Michael Frotscher (Photo: private)
Michael Frotscher, born in 1947, could not have studied medicine in Dresden without being a member of the former GDR’s high jump high-performance sports team. Being the son of a church cantor, he would not otherwise have been given this privilege. However, it was not long before Frotscher suffered at the hands of the political regime. After his doctorate, which he did at the Institute of Anatomy at the Charité in Berlin, Frotscher wanted to accept an invitation to work in Oslo, Norway. However, he was not allowed to take up this position because he was not a member of the Communist Party. Instead of Frotscher, a student who was in line with the political regime was allowed to travel. “This was terribly frustrating,” recalls Frotscher adding that “the Party decided everything; it decided which research projects were to receive funding and even determined the chemicals that the scientists were allowed to purchase.”

Freedom of research

But Frotscher was fascinated by his research, the anatomy of the nervous system. He even abandoned a permanent post as a urologist in Potsdam in order to pursue what fascinated him most. During a research stay in Budapest, which, compared to the former GDR was relatively liberal, he met many foreign scientists and eventually realised that only the West would give him the necessary freedom for his ideas. That is why in 1979 he escaped from the GDR. He received a grant at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt and with the new position, also the freedom to attend meetings in other countries. In 1981, he habilitated in neuroanatomy before accepting an assistant professorship post at the Institute of Anatomy in Heidelberg in 1982. In 1983, he accepted a C3 professorship at the Institute of Anatomy in Frankfurt before accepting a full professorship at the Institute of Anatomy and Cell Biology in Freiburg in 1989, where he remains the head of the Department of Neuroanatomy.

“The scientific work is so exciting because of the creative challenges combined with such work,” said Frotscher. “Once one problem is solved, then one continues and meets another one; there is no repetition, there is no routine.” Frotscher continued his own research as soon as he found room for creative activities. During his time in Berlin, he mainly focused on the anatomical structure of the brain network. But the simple description of the different connections in the brain soon led to questions as to how these connections develop or how their structure affects the function of the brain.

Only research can help

Electron microscopic image of a hippocampal moss fibre synapse after high-pressure freezing. MFB: moss fibre ending with synaptic vesicles; S: postsynaptic spine; scale: 1µm (Figure: work group Prof. Dr. Michael Frotscher)
For several years now, Frotscher’s team has been dealing with these two questions. Frotscher and his colleagues prepare brain slices and, working together with neurophysiologists, examine the anatomical structure. They are mainly interested in how the structure of nerve cell contacts (synapses) changes when these are active. Such investigations require that the native morphology of the synapses remains intact. Therefore, Frotscher and his team refrain from using formaldehyde to fix the tissue. Formaldehyde generally leads to the shrinkage of the samples which subsequently change their physical properties. Instead, the researchers use brain slices that they shock-freeze under high pressure. “This way, we are most likely to see the synapses under the electron microscope as they really are,” said Frotscher. The 60-year-old professor has already received many research awards, including the Leibniz Award and the Baden-Württemberg State Research Prize. But it is not prizes that motivate him. What really motivates him to carry out research on the processes happening at synapses and the development of brain connections is his conviction that this is the only way to help patients suffering from neurological diseases. Clinical treatment remains limited because there is still far too little knowledge available about the function of the nervous system. For example, greater insights into the nervous system would greatly benefit trauma patients whose spinal marrow has been severed. Frotscher hopes to gain a greater understanding of the molecular mechanisms that lead cells to come into contact with each other during the development of the nervous system. This will allow the researchers to come up with ideas on how to induce cells to make contact with other cells in cases when the tissue has been severed.

Room for creativity

“But research takes a lot of time,” said Frotscher adding that “scientists need time to read the large number of newly-published scientific papers, time to think and time to test new ideas.” It is exactly the time to do all these things that he has been gradually losing during his career as university professor. Activities on boards or administrative work have increasingly limited the time he would have liked to use for research. That is why he applied for a senior professorship of the Hertie Foundation, which gives researchers over 60 the possibility to use the final years in their career for their research into the brain. He is very happy that he was granted the senior professorship and is more than happy to leave the supervision of his department to his successor. For Frotscher, time for creative science is more important than holding high office in a university.

mn – 14th May 2008
© BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH
Further information:
Prof. Dr. Michael Frotscher
Head of the Department of Neuroanatomy
Institute of Anatomy and Cell Biology
University of Freiburg
Albertstraße 17
79104 Freiburg
Tel.: +49 (0)761-203-5056
Fax: +49 (0)761-203-5054
E-mail: michael.frotscher@anat.uni-freiburg.de
Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/michael-frotscher-creativity-is-of-great-importance-to-me