The NeuroCure cluster of excellence takes visitors to the Humboldt Lab on a journey into the human brain and shows how electrical impulses originate shape in the brain. There are even plans to enable exhibition visitors to take a look at their own brain waves.
In a projection of swirling fish, countless butterflies, dinosaur skeletons, suspended objects and moving roller blinds, historic collectors’ items and models from current top-level research line up in the Humboldt Lab to form a “florilegium of things,” as Dr Gorch Pieken, the exhibition’s head curator, calls the selection.
Visitors take on board this abundance of images, text and movements, they sort, bundle and filter all these stimuli and evaluate them in their minds so that what they have seen makes sense or raises issues. But how does it function? How does the brain, our most complex organ, work?
In the Humboldt Lab, the Humboldt-Universität’s science exhibition in the Humboldt Forum, the NeuroCure cluster of excellence invites visitors to take part in an expedition to the nerve centre of human beings. At a research station with monitors and touch screens the cluster, located at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin university hospital, offers insights into its research – and demonstrates playfully and interactively how the brain is constructed.
How does it react to unpleasant images? How does it handle the complex issues and problems on which light is shed in the exhibition? “Where do we look – and where do we look away?” Gorch Pieken asks. These, he says, are exciting issues raised in dealing with the human brain. In spite of a flow of new findings it still poses puzzles for science. “In many areas it is still uncharted territory,” the curator says.
Twenty-four professors and their research groups belong to the NeuroCure cluster of excellence, which has been funded since 2007 by the federal and state governments’ excellence initiative. Since 2019 it has received, as part of the excellence strategy, what will be a further seven years of funding with a focus on research into neurological and psychiatric disorders.
In the exhibition scientists will explain how electrical activity comes about in the brain and how it can be measured, says Dr Claudia Mahlke, business manager of the excellence cluster. The most important cells in the brain are nerve cells, or neurons, that that transmit information by means of electrical signals. Each of an estimated 90 billion neurons can be connected with thousands of others and can communicate with them.
These electrical impulses are measured inter alia by means of electroencephalography (EEG), which records voltage fluctuations on the surface of the head. There are plans, Dr Mahlke says, to enable visitors to measure the electrical currents in their own brains at the NeuroCure research station. “Those who are interested simply put on a kind of headset with which their brain activity can be made visible,” she explains.
NeuroCure is conducting research into brain disorders in which interaction between the nerve cells is disrupted. They can be developmental disabilities, Parkinson’s, dementia and strokes, but also psychiatric conditions such as depression or schizophrenia. Films at the research station provide insights into the scientists’ research labs – places to which the general public does not normally have access. “We have found people always to be most enthusiastic when they can take a look at a workplace of this kind,” Claudia Mahlke says.
One of the scientists who will be presenting her work at the exhibition is Professor Andrea Kühn. She is a neurologist and movement disorders are a focal point of her research at the Charité. The planned film will accompany her in the ward where Parkinson’s patients are treated to alleviate the severe symptoms of the disease.
Parkinson’s is one of the most frequent diseases that trigger movement disorders. It is caused by a shortage of the messenger substance dopamine with the result that movements can no longer be controlled in a differentiated way. “The most frequent symptoms include trembling and a slowing of physical movement, but Parkinson’s is not just a disease of the motor system; it is also a neuropsychiatric complaint that can trigger symptoms such as sadness, depression or forgetfulness,” Andrea Kühn explains.
The motor difficulties can be alleviated by means of deep brain stimulation. Thin electrodes are implanted deep into the brain and emit targeted electrical impulses. The medical device, also known as a brain pacemaker, is implanted under the skin below the collarbone.
A treatment of this kind is only possible as a result of preliminary basic research, says Claudia Mahlke. “An important objective of the cluster is to bring basic knowledge into clinical research.”
For NeuroCure the Humboldt Lab is an opportunity to present its work to the wider public, she says. Conveying knowledge and being visible is also necessary to explain to people what clinical studies are and to persuade them to take part in them. It is important, Dr Mahlke says, to make transparent how and why which research projects are undertaken. “For us the exhibition is an opportunity to show that science takes society forward – quite apart from the fact that we greatly enjoy explaining how the brain works.”
|Date:||22. September 2020|