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Elite Network of Bavaria FORUM Focuses on Neurosciences

Under the title "From Con­nec­tomes to Brain Com­puter Inter­fac­es", the Elite Net­work con­tinued its Ba­vari­a-wide visible event series "FO­RUM" after a pan­demic-related break on 23 March 2023 in the Au­dimax of the Tech­nical Uni­versi­ty of Mu­nich (TUM).

Two Elite Graduate Pro­grams, "Bi­omed­ical Neu­rosci­ene" and "Neu­roen­gi­neer­ing" at TUM, had joined forces an orga­nized the event to­geth­er. More than 300 regis­tra­tions con­firm the high social and scien­tific rele­vance of neu­rosci­ence itself as well as its poten­tial for appli­cati­ons such as neu­roprosthet­ics in engi­neer­ing. With Prof. Jeff Lichtmann (Har­vard Uni­versi­ty) and Prof. Stani­sa Raspopovic (ETH Zur­ich), two dis­tin­guished speakers could be won, who con­veyed the im­pres­sive pro­gress of the last years as well as the cur­rent and future chal­lenges to an inter­ested expert audi­ence. Beate Linder (Elite Net­work of Ba­varia) and Prof. Juli­ane Win­kel­mann (Vice Presi­dent Inter­na­tional Alli­ances and Alumni, TUM) wel­comed the guests and stu­dents in the TUM Au­di­max.

Measuring the neural network – Connectomic

Jeff Lichtman, pro­fessor of mo­lecu­lar and cellu­lar biolo­gy at Har­vard Uni­versi­ty, pro­vided fasci­nating in­sights into the struc­ture of the brain at the cellu­lar level. At the end of the 19th centu­ry, Ra­mon y Cajal and Ca­millo Golgi were suc­cess­ful in show­ing that neu­rons, spe­cial brain cells, form an inter­relat­ed net­work of inter­con­nect­ed cells. The rela­tively young re­search field Con­nec­tomic, in the crea­tion of which Jeff Lichtman was signif­icant­ly in­volved, deals with the con­struc­tion of the neu­ronal net­work, with the goal of creat­ing a com­plete three-dimen­sional "map" of the brain. Using a spe­cial tech­nique (Au­to­matic Tape-Collect­ing Lathe Ul­trami­cro­tome), Jeff Lichtman's re­search group is able to obtain ul­trathin two-dimen­sional sec­tions of small brain sam­ples and visu­alize the cellu­lar and sub­cellu­lar struc­tures under the elec­tron mi­cro­scope. With great com­puta­tional effort, com­puters can then gen­erate a three-dimen­sional image from these two-dimen­sional maps. So far, it has been possi­ble to "map" brain areas in the size of a thou­sandth of a millili­ter. In the pro­cess, it be­came ap­parent in spec­tacu­lar reso­lution how com­plex our neu­ronal net­work itself is struc­tured in detail. Jeff Lichtman's lec­ture and pic­tures left a tangi­ble im­pres­sion and fasci­nation on our young scien­tists, which led to many lively dis­cussions af­ter­wards.


Stanisa Raspopovic, Assis­tant Pro­fessor of Neu­roen­gi­neer­ing at the De­part­ment of Health Sci­ences and Tech­nolo­gy at ETH Zur­ich, com­bines phys­iolog­ical and clini­cal exper­tise on the brain and the nerv­ous sys­tem. He demonstrates how a com­bi­nation with hard­ware, phys­ics, and soft­ware tools can im­prove the quali­ty of life of e.g. pa­tients with neuro­logi­cal re­strictions. The deci­sive tool for this is com­put­er-aid­ed mod­eling of the inter­action of the nerv­ous sys­tem with elec­tric fields. To­gether with his re­search group at ETH Zur­ich, Prof. Raspopovic de­velops, among oth­er pro­jects, mech­atron­ic sys­tems that form a di­rect inter­face be­tween the envi­ron­ment and the rest of the nerv­ous sys­tem, so-called brain-comput­er inter­faces. As with all com­muni­cati­on, this re­quires cod­ing, a kind of "neu­ral lan­guage". A major chal­lenge here is the com­bi­nation of a digital world of sen­sors and elec­trodes with the nerv­ous sys­tem. In his presentation, Stani­sa Raspopovic placed a spe­cial em­phasis on pa­tients with ampu­tated lower limbs. In this con­text, sen­sors on the pa­tient's pros­thetic leg enable the pa­tient to per­ceive ground con­tact and thus to walk signif­icant­ly better. At the same time, such pros­theses with neuro­inter­face also re­duce the oth­erwise com­mon phan­tom pain.

An unforgettable evening

Both presenta­tions demonstrated how neu­rosci­ence fun­damentals are inter­twined with ap­plied re­search and de­velopment. The two im­pres­sive lec­tures led to a live­ly ex­change be­tween the stu­dents and lec­turers of both cours­es, repre­senta­tives of the scien­tific com­muni­ty and the two award win­ners. The poster exhi­bition, curat­ed by stu­dents from both Elite Grad­uate Pro­grams, was of par­ticular inter­est to the guests. The Elite Net­work of Ba­varia FO­RUM came to a beau­tiful end, musi­cally framed by the jazz band "Thursday Chill out Com­bo" around An­dreas Kurz, also (mu­sical) award win­ner and lec­turer at the Uni­versi­ty of Music and Thea­tre Mu­nich.
The joint invita­tion of two Elite Pro­gramms has visi­bly in­creased the reach of the FO­RUM for­mat. The feed­back from the guests vali­dates the for­mat and clear­ly speaks for a con­tinua­tion of the event se­ries.

Text: Michael Brunnhuber, Pia Eckert und Florian Rattei, TUM