The NMDA receptor complex – a signalling hub at the origin of cognitive flexibility?


Cognitive flexibility is defined as the ability of the brain to adapt mental processes and behavior in response to changes in the environment. We are interested in cognitive flexibility because age- and disease-related deficits in cognitive flexibility are observed in humans and laboratory rodents. We want to understand how such deficits develop and how they can be treated. In our project, we investigate which factors can improve or impair cognitive flexibility by focusing on NMDA receptor signaling in the prefrontal cortex.

Principal Investigators

CRC 1436 member Daniela Dieterich

Prof. Dr. Daniela Dieterich

CRC 1436 member Markus Fendt

Prof. Dr. Markus Fendt

Prof. Dr. Daniela Dieterich

Daniela C. Dieterich is an expert addressing the role of synaptic protein homeostasis regulation through the coordinated control of translation and degradation. She has developed and applied cutting-edge technologies involving ‘click-chemistry’ that provide the consortium with tools to address dynamic changes in these processes with unprecedented temporal and cellular resolution, ultimately allowing the cell-selective identification of neuronal and glial access points.

Prof. Dr. Markus Fendt

Markus Fendt is head of a research group at the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxiology, Medical Faculty, Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg. The group’s research focuses on the neuropharmacological basis of emotional and cognitive brain systems with special interest in behavioral endophenotypes of neuropsychiatric disorders. To this end, various behavioral paradigms are used in combination with molecular and immunohistochemical analyses as well as systemic and local pharmacological and chemogenetic manipulations in wildtype and genetically modified laboratory rodents.


CRC 1436 Member Dr. Samia Afzal

Dr. Samia Afzal

picture is coming soon

Nora Broda

CRC 1436 member Archana Durairaja

Archana Durairaja

CRC 1436 member Julius Duske

Julius Duske

CRC 1436 member Peter Landgraf

Dr. Peter Landgraf

CRC 1436 member Lisa Seifried

Lisa Seifried

Dr. Samia Afzal

Samia Afzal has been a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology, Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg since January 2023. Previously, she performed her PhD studies in molecular biomedicine at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, where she analyzed experience-dependent macroscopic brain plasticity using different experimental animal approaches. Currently, she is investigating factors that can improve/impair cognitive flexibility by focusing on NMDA receptor signalling in the prefrontal cortex as part of project A01 (Research Area A) in the SFB. Her main research interest is to use cell biological, molecular and proteomic tools in combination with behavioral assessment of cognitive flexibility in mice to understand the role of the NMDA receptor signalling complex in cognitive flexibility.

Archana Durairaja

I obtained my bachelors in the field of Bioengineering in India and have a masters in Integrative neuroscience from OvGU. Currently, I am a PhD-student at the department of neuropharmacology of emotional systems, Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology, OvGU, Magdeburg under the supervision of Prof. Markus Fendt. For my PhD, I am investigating the sexually dimorphic role of orexin system in regulating cognitive flexibility, attention and impulsivity in neuropsychiatric disorders.  I’m using behavioural paradigms such as attentional set shifting task to assess cognitive flexibility and an automated touch screen system to perform visual discrimination and 5-choice serial reaction time task to assess attention and impulsivity.

Julius Duske

I’m a medicine student at the Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg. Since October 2022, I am pausing my studies, to work on my MD thesis at the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology. As a part of project A01 at CRC1436, I explore the influence that circadian rhythm disturbances have on cognitive flexibility. Because the neuropeptide orexin plays an important role in regulating sleep-wake cycle and its brain levels are affected by disruptions of it, I’m interested whether an orexinergic modulation on chronic jetlag-induced mice can decrease their deficits in cognitive flexibility.

Dr. Peter Landgraf

Peter studied Biology and Biochemistry at the Matin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg and finished with the diploma degree. After his PhD at the same university, he moved in 2000 to Magdeburg and joined the labs of Michael R. Kreutz at the Leibniz Institute of Neurobiology (LIN) and Hans-Christian Pape at the Institute of Physiology of the Medical Faculty. In 2009 he joined the Emmy-Noether-Research Group of Daniela C. Dieterich at the LIN and in 2012 he followed her to the Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology of the Medical Faculty of the Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg, where he is a senior scientist and lecturer for pharmacology and toxicology. His main interest is focused on the protein turnover in neurons and astrocytes as well as state of the art metabolic labeling technologies like NCAT’s.

Why is cognitive flexibility important?

Greater cognitive flexibility is generally associated with favorable outcomes and abilities like flexible thinking, creativity, resilience to negative life events, and the ability to understand the emotions, thoughts, and intentions of others. Simply put, cognitive flexibility has a positive impact on the quality of life.

How to measure cognitive flexibility in humans and mice?

For humans, there are tests such as the computer-based CANTAB (Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery) or the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test. These tests are sensitive to positive and negative pharmacological, genetic, and environmental effects in healthy and patient populations.

In laboratory mice, we use the attentional set-shifting task (ASST) to measure cognitive flexibility. This task involves several cognitive transfers, such as reversal learning, intra-, and extra-dimensional shifts. For our research, we use the ‘digging version’ of the ASST. In this version, a food reward is presented in one of two bowls; these bowls have different odors and different filling materials in which the food reward is hidden. The mouse has to learn that either a particular odor or a particular material predicts the reward, while other stimuli have to be ignored. In the course of the test, the contingencies are repeatedly changed, and also new odors and materials are used, as soon as a mouse has learned a particular contingency.

Which factors affect cognitive flexibility?

Many factors can impair cognitive flexibility, such as aging, diseases ranging from neuropsychiatric conditions (e.g., depression, autism spectrum disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder) to neurological disorders (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease). Neuropathologically, dysfunctions of neural circuitries within the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and dysregulation of NMDA receptors are factors leading to impaired cognitive flexibility. Better cognitive flexibility can also be observed, for example during specific developmental phases (early childhood, puberty), during positive emotions, after cognitive enrichment (“brain training”), and after voluntary aerobic exercise. Pharmacologically, positive modulation of NMDA receptor signaling can improve cognitive flexibility and thereby rescue age- or disease-induced deficits.

Which brain regions are important
for cognitive flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility is associated with a defined circuitry within the prefrontal cortex. Studies in laboratory rodents have demonstrated that the orbitofrontal cortex plays a key role in reversal learning, while the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex (in humans: dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) are important for intra-dimensional and extra-dimensional shifts, respectively.

What is the NMDA receptor?

Glutamate receptors are the most abundant type of excitatory receptors in the mammalian forebrain and are –among others– required for synaptic plasticity, learning, and memory. The NMDA receptor is one of the three types of ionotropic glutamate receptors, containing two obligatory NMDAR-type 1 subunits (GluN1), in combination with two regulatory GluN2 (GluN2A-D) and/or GluN3 (GluN3A-B) subunits. Many studies showed that the expression of these regulatory subunits changes during development, as well as in some diseases.

Both hyperfunction and hypofunction of NMDA receptors can contribute to disease pathophysiology. Hyperfunction and overexpression of NMDA receptors can cause excitotoxicity, which is involved in some neurodegenerative disorders and might also be increased by aging. Hypofunction of NMDA receptors is for example involved in the impairment of synaptic plasticity. That means that a normal so-called “physiological” functioning of the NMDA receptor is required for a healthy brain and healthy cognitive flexibility.

What is our hypothesis?

Previous findings suggest that the different components of the NMDA receptor (e.g., its subunits), as well as the associated signaling pathways and scaffolding proteins, play distinct roles in cognitive flexibility. Thus, our hypothesis is that specific modulation of particular components will rescue deficits in cognitive flexibility. Furthermore, we hypothesize that these components are influenced by environmental and/or life history factors –which play an important role in age-related cognitive decline in humans and thereby contribute to individual cognitive flexibility. 

What is our goal and how to reach it?

The overall goal of the project is to understand the role of the NMDA receptor signaling complex in cognitive flexibility using state-of-the-art molecular, cell biological, and proteomic tools in combination with behavioral assessment of cognitive flexibility in mice. Based on this knowledge, we hope to be able to develop pharmacological interventions that can rescue impaired cognitive flexibility.

Publications of the project A01