Paradigm shift in brain health

The “Cognitive Vitality” interdisciplinary research initiative at Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg is conducting research in to how, in future, new therapeutic approaches and interventions might help to preserve and reinforce intellectual performance even where there are physical impairments. Neuroscientists are hoping to work with engineers to discover how the interaction between our brain, body and environment works and what influence physical illnesses and their treatment have on our intellectual performance.

A team around Professor Dr. med. Emrah Düzel, Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology and Dementia Research at the University of Magdeburg, aims to investigate how the potential of our brain can be mobilized and used to best effect in everyday life, even where physical health is impaired. With new digital technologies, the researchers aim to develop treatment and prevention methods that will help to improve and/or preserve brain health, even with reduced physical performance. The objective of this interdisciplinary research partnership, in which over 50 scientists are involved in Magdeburg, is to decode the anatomical and systemic foundations of these disorders, so that in future limitations in the everyday lives of those affected can be prevented, their independence can be ensured in old age and the enormous costs for the health care system can be reduced.

“Cognitive vitality means making the best possible use of our higher brain functions even under non-optimal conditions,” explains Professor Dr. med. Emrah Düzel, the spokesperson of the research initiative. “This means perception, attention, thought processes and the storage of information as well as decision-making and motivation. When these processes are disordered and their functions are severely and permanently limited, this leads to far-reaching effects on the independence and self-actualization of individuals, and often to the inability to work and the need for others to take care of them.” The neurologist and neuroscientist goes on to explain that apart from the suffering of the patients themselves, the resulting strains on the health care system are immense.

Emrah Düzel suspects that these functional disorders can be reversed and influenced. “We anticipate that through our research cluster within a few years initial interventions and prevention measures will be identified that will counteract the limitations on higher cognitive performance, and in particular of the memory, spatial orientation, attention and decision-making, and that it will be possible to integrate these into everyday life as well as health care. Our vision is to develop an internationally leading center for cognitive health that will spearhead a paradigm shift in medicine dealing with cognition.

Joint spokesperson of the research partnership and Director of the Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology, Professor Dr. Stefan Remy stresses that “in this connection, the neurocognitive circuitry in the brain, its susceptibility to negative influences such as other diseases in the body or environmental influences as well as its ability to recover from them again, are critical. We are capable of identifying causal relationships between circuits and behavior in animal models and transferring these principles to the human brain.”

Best infrastructure for neuroscience research

State-of-the-art technologies are available to the over 50 scientists from the University of Magdeburg and external institutes such as the Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), the Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology Magdeburg (LIN) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF) in MagdeburgFor example, Europe’s highest performance 7-Tesla connectome MRI provides insights into the innermost architecture of the brain in unprecedented resolution. Thanks to the combination of molecular, optogenetic, electrophysiological and high-resolution microscopic methods, scientists can track memory traces through the various layers of the brain and visualize them as circuits. To facilitate access to and exchange of this knowledge, the initiative is creating interdisciplinary cooperation structures between the neurosciences, medicine and engineering sciences with platforms for neurocognitive circuit research and computer and data sciences (DECODE) as well as experimental drug and technology development (Mittel-Elbe).

The “Cognitive Vitality” research initiative is one of a total of three research clusters with which Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg is participating in the latest round of the nationwide excellence initiative. “The ‘Cognitive Vitality’ research partnership is the logical continuation of previous activities and successes in neuroscientific research at Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg,” says the President, Professor Dr.-Ing. Jens Strackeljan. ”Through the close connection and interdisciplinary cooperation between medicine and engineering, we are leaving faculty boundaries behind us, placing the previously successful neuroscience research focal point at the university on a new level and positioning ourselves as a heavyweight center in brain research.”

The scientists in the research initiative anticipate that they will have identified initial interventions and preventative measures within around seven years that will counteract the limitations on higher cognitive performance, and in particular of the memory, spatial orientation, attention and decision-making, and that it will be possible to integrate these into health care.