Press releases – February 2015

 

Feb 25 2015
15:31

Perception and memory are based on the same principles

The brain treats real and imaginary objects in the same way

The human brain can select relevant objects from a flood of information and edit out what is irrelevant. It also knows which parts belong to a whole. If, for example, we direct our attention to the doors of a house, the brain will preferentially process its windows, but not the neighbouring houses. Psychologists from Goethe University Frankfurt have now discovered that this also happens when parts of the objects are merely maintained in our memory.

"Perception and memory have mainly been investigated separately until now", explains Benjamin Peters, doctoral researcher at the Institute for Medical Psychology in the working group of Prof. Jochen Kaiser. There are close parallels, for in the same way as we can preferentially process external stimuli, we are also able to concentrate on the memory content that is currently the most important. These are essential skills of our brain, which are closely connected to intelligence and which are impaired in various psychiatric illnesses.

In their study, Peters and colleagues examined "object-based attention", a well-known phenomenon in perception research. This refers to the fact that we automatically extend our attention to the whole object when we attend only part of an object – like the front door and the windows.  In the experiment the subjects were asked to direct their attention alternately to one of four screen positions, which formed the ends of each of two artificial objects. In accordance with the principle of object-based attention the subjects were able to shift their attention more quickly between two positions that belonged to the same object than between those that were part of different objects. It was discovered that this effect also occurred when the subjects envisaged these positions only in short-term memory.

The researchers were able to describe the effect physiologically by examining the neuronal activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). As expected, they initially found increased activity at those positions in the cerebral cortex where the currently focused position was represented (visual and parietal cortex). However, this increased activity also extended to the areas in the brain that represent the relevant associated position of the same object, despite the fact that the subject was not concentrating on it. Peters explains the results of the experiment by saying: "It is remarkable that this effect was observed in regions of the brain that are normally involved in perception, despite the fact that here, objects and positions were only maintained in memory". On the other hand, the regions in which the equidistant positions of the other object are represented remained unchanged.

This concordance of an underlying principle of attention in perception and in memory suggests that it may be possible to attribute many functions of human cognition to a few basic mechanisms.

Publication:
Benjamin Peters et al.: Activity in Human Visual and Parietal Cortex Reveals Object-
Based Attention in Working Memory, in: The Journal of Neuroscience, February 25, 2015, 35(8):3360 –3369

Information:
Benjamin Peters, Institut für Medizinische Psychologie, Campus Niederrad, Tel.: (069) 6301-84735, peters@med.uni-frankfurt.de.

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Feb 12 2015
16:10

Frankfurt-based intensive care medical practitioner, Kai Zacharowski, is working on a joint curriculum for Europe

Cross-border intensive care medicine

FRANKFURT. Anyone who becomes seriously ill or has an accident while on holiday would like to be treated as well as they are at home. It is vitally important for the patient that the doctor has been well trained, in particular in intensive care medicine. A commission at the European Union under the leadership of Prof. Kai Zacharowski, the Director of the Clinic for Anaesthesiology, Intensive Care Medicine and Pain Therapy at the Goethe University Frankfurt is striving for uniform standards across Europe. This commission - shortened to MJC ICM for Multiple Joint Committee Intensive Care Medicine - has worked out general guidelines, which the member states are now expected to ratify. This will certainly not happen without compromises.

"United in diversity" - this is the motto of the European Union. At the level of professional training this diversity can also be obstructive, as it restricts the freedom there actually is in this diversity. And in the field of medicine diversity can also become a disadvantage to the patient. The regulations in intensive care medicine are particularly inconsistent. For example, in Germany medical practitioners initially finish their specialist medical training before they can be further trained as a practitioner in intensive care medicine, while in Spain, intensive care medicine is a specialist medical training directly connected to study. It's not surprising that a change within Europe for practitioners of intensive care medicine might be difficult.

"Young doctors do not want to commit themselves for their whole professional life to the field of intensive care medicine", Kai Zacharowski gives the reasons for the organisation of training in Germany. Shift work and the considerable psychological strain suggest that doctors should not commit themselves to intensive care medicine at too early a stage, according to the professor, who also represents Germany in the Union Européene des Médicins Spécialistes (UEmS). He considers a training period of a total of seven years to be essential: "After three years we cannot allow a young colleague to work independently". In the end, however, the length of training remains a matter for the individual states. There should, however, be uniform standards in the contents. Guidelines for the medical professions are drawn up nationally, by health ministries or by professional associations. There are already obligatory general requirements for subjects such as heart surgery, anaesthesia or neurosurgery. Now there is also to be a new European framework for intensive care medicine, which was worked out in agreement with the national professional associations.

"Intensive care medicine has changed a lot in the last few years", says Zacharowski: "We can now revive people, who would certainly have died ten years ago". This is resulting in new challenges for intensive care medicine and nursing treatment. A medical practitioner on the intensive care ward must competently manage the whole spectrum required in working with critically ill people: the replacement of organ functions, dialysis, artificial ventilation, the recognition and treatment of different types of blood poisoning, the correct use of antibiotics, the management of blood transfusions - and, not least, dealing with relatives.

On the basis of the EU-sponsored programme, CoBaTriCE, a paper was drawn up, which Zacharowski presented to the European Commission at the end of 2014 . Before parliament decides on the guidelines, the various national authorities must have ruled on them. Zacharowski is expecting a conclusion by the end of the year, before then, however, he will have to have many discussions. Individual countries such as Great Britain have already indicated a positive response, reports Zacharowski. Nevertheless, compromises will have to be reached, as in the end a more extensive training also means higher costs. It is certain, however: If Europe is to draw closer, a uniform training is essential.

Information: Prof. Dr. Dr. mailto:Direktion.Anaesthesie@kgu.deKai Zacharowski, Direktion.Anaesthesie@kgu.de

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Feb 10 2015
09:24

The German Meteorological Service sponsors a new professorship at the Goethe University with 1.2 million euros

Weather forecasts: Obtaining a better understanding of processes in the atmospheric boundary layer

FRANKFURT. Thunderstorms, wind, fog, extreme rainfall – all these weather events develop in the near-surface layer of air in the earth's atmosphere. Quantifying the processes that occur in this layer using meteorological models is still problematic. In order to improve its forecasts, over the next four years the German Meteorological Service will be sponsoring a new professorship for boundary layer meteorology at the Goethe University with the amount of 1.2 million euros.

The atmospheric boundary layer, up to one thousand metres thick, can attain altitudes comparable to that of the great Feldberg in the Taunus. This is where the exchange of humidity between the ground and the air occurs, triggering cloud formation, which in turn influences solar radiation. The enhanced description of the boundary layer in numerical weather forecasting, especially in the corresponding models of the German Meteorological Service, promises more reliable forecasting of extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall. At the same time, it could also provide more precise predictions of near-ground winds and solar radiation for wind farms and solar facilities.

"Without a good description of the atmospheric boundary layer, an accurate weather forecast is impossible", explains Prof. Ulrich Achatz of the Institute for Atmosphere and Environment at the Goethe University. It is particularly difficult to describe the boundary layer at night. During the day the ground is warmed up by solar radiation. The associated drop in temperature from the ground up to greater atmospheric altitudes promotes the formation of turbulence that can be described relatively well. At night, the near-ground temperatures drop while the boundary layer is stabilised and experiences a complex interaction between turbulence and atmospheric waves. This is not taken sufficiently into consideration in the weather forecast programmes currently in use.

Along with the professorship, the positions of a post-doctoral fellow and two doctoral candidates are being sponsored by the Hans Ertel Centre of the German Meteorological Service (DWD), which is assigning one of its own staff members to work at the university for the duration of the sponsorship. With this programme, which goes into its second sponsorship phase in 2015, the DWD is establishing research collaborations with German universities that are relevant for its own work. At the Goethe University, the new research field of boundary layer meteorology is being integrated into the course studies for the Bachelor's and Master's Programmes for Meteorology.

Information: Prof. Ulrich Achatz, Institute for Atmosphere and Environment, Phone +49 (0)69 798-40243, achatz@iau.uni-frankfurt.de

Goethe University is a research-oriented university in the European financial centre Frankfurt Founded in 1914 with purely private funds by liberally-oriented Frankfurt citizens, it is dedicated to research and education under the motto "Science for Society" and to this day continues to function as a "citizens’ university".  Many of the early benefactors were Jewish.   Over the past 100 years, Goethe University has done pioneering work in the social and sociological sciences, chemistry, quantum physics, brain research and labour law.  It gained a unique level of autonomy on 1 January 2008 by returning to its historic roots as a privately funded university.   Today, it is among the top ten in external funding and among the top three largest universities in Germany, with three clusters of excellence in medicine, life sciences and the humanities.

Publisher: The President of Goethe University, Marketing and Communications Department, 60629 Frankfurt am Main

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Feb 10 2015
09:07

German-American team of researchers finds neurophysiological correlates for cognitive and emotional symptoms in a Schizophrenia mouse model

Schizophrenia: Impaired activity of the selective dopamine neurons

Schizophrenia is not only associated with positive symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions, but also with negative symptoms e.g. cognitive deficits and impairments of the emotional drive. Until now, the underlying mechanisms for these negative symptoms have not been well characterized. In the current edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) a German-American team of researchers, with the cooperation of the Goethe University, reports that a selective dopamine midbrain population that is crucial for emotional and cognitive processing shows reduced electrical in vivo activity in a disease mouse model.

Schizophrenia is a severe and incurable psychiatric illness, which affects approximately one percent of the world population. While acute psychotic states of the disease have been successfully treated with psychopharmaceutical drugs (antipsychotic agents) for many decades, cognitive deficits and impairments of motivation do not respond well to standard drug therapy. This is a crucial problem, as the long-term prognosis of a patient is determined above all by the severity of these negative symptoms. Therefore, the shortened average life-span of about 25 years for schizophrenia patients remained largely unaltered in recent decades.  

"In order to develop new therapy strategies we need an improved neurobiological understanding of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia" explains Prof. Roeper of the Institute for Neurophysiology of the Goethe University. His American colleagues, Prof. Eleanor Simpson and Prof. Eric Kandel at Columbia University in New York recently made an important initial step in this direction. They created a new transgenic mouse model based on striatal overexpression of dopamine typ 2 receptors, which displayed typical signs of cognitive and emotional negative symptoms similar to those occurring in patients with schizophrenia. The researchers detected typical impairment in working memory with corresponding neurochemical changes in dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. However, the underlying neurophysiological impairments of dopamine neurons remained unresolved.

Now, Prof. Eleanor Simpson and Prof. Jochen Roeper, in cooperation with the mathematician Prof. Gaby Schneider of the Goethe University and the physiologist Prof. Birgit Liss of the University of Ulm have succeeded in defining the neurophysiological impairments with the dopamine system. They were able to show, with single cell recordings in the intact brain of mice, that those dopamine midbrain neurons responsible for emotional and cognitive processing displayed altered patterns and frequencies of electrical activity. In contrast, adjacent dopamine neurons, which are involved in motor control, were not affected.

The researchers were also able to show that – in line with the persistence of cognitive deficits in mice and patients–  the pathological discharge patterns of dopamine neurons persisted even after the causal transgene had been switched off in adult mice. "This result emphasizes the presence of a critical early phase for the development of cognitive deficits in schizophrenia" according to Roeper. He and his colleagues are currently examining how the neuronal activity of dopamine neurons changes during the working memory tasks. "Our results show that altered neuronal activity of selective dopamine neurons is crucial for schizophrenia", Jochen Roeper summarises the importance of the research work.

Publication:
Krabbe et al.: Increased dopamine D2 receptor activity in the striatum alters the firing pattern of dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area, in PNAS 9.2.2015, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1500450112

Information: Prof. Jochen Roeper, Institute for Neurophysiology, Campus Niederrad, Tel.: +49 (0)69 6301-84091, roeper@em.uni-frankfurt.de.

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Feb 5 2015
09:56

The Volkswagen Foundation provides room for thought: The Frankfurt sociologist Thomas Lemke writes his "Magnum Opus"

The Government of Things. Foundations and Perspectives of New Materialism

FRANKFURT.  Frankfurt Professor of Sociology, Thomas Lemke, has received funding from the Volkswagen Foundation for his "Magnum Opus". For the 51-year old scientist, who has dedicated himself to the subject of "Biotechnology, Nature and Society" for many years, this means eighteen months of freedom to devote himself solely to a larger scientific work. He already has a working title for his "Magnum Opus": "The Government of Things. Foundations and Perspectives of New Materialism". In his book, Lemke intends to examine the exploratory and innovative potential of New Materialism with a critical eye, and to take a systematic approach to this new area of research for the first time.

As part of its sponsorship programme, the Foundation will fund Lemke's substitute professor. This means that not only will the Professor benefit, but also Dr. Eva Sänger, who has just completed a research project in the Faculty of Social Sciences on the role of ultrasound images in prenatal diagnostics, funded by the German Research Association. During the upcoming summer semester, she will be lecturing to students on topics covering science and technology studies, medical sociology and feminist theory.

In his major work, Lemke wants to pick up on a striking new approach and a shift of emphasis that he has observed for some years in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and which has been given the term "New Materialism". "The hallmark of this materialism is that the concepts of self-organization and agency, which were traditionally reserved for human beings, have been extended to non-human entities", explains Lemke. By entities, philosophers and sociologists are referring to something that exists; an entity, which can be a tangible or abstract object. "It can be observed that things, artefacts and objects, are being increasingly debated and newly conceptualised." Whether it is stem cells, computers or the internet: they are all viewed as a hybrid between dead matter and living beings, between the factual and the normative.

The sociologist comments on his extensive project: "For me, on the one hand it is about exploring the differences compared to earlier versions of materialism, while on the other hand looking at the unsolved theoretical tensions and conceptual ambiguities of this research perspective." However, his aim is ultimately to achieve more than just to compile a critical inventory of the current situation within New Materialism. "My thesis is that within the idea of a "Government of Things", which occurs in the work of the French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault, there are also elements of a post-humanist and relational concept of materialism, which could be usefully developed." In this sense, there are no "things as such", but instead things and their limitations are only created through interactive relationships, and human behaviour depends entirely on certain enabling conditions, devices and material arrangements. 

The book will consider and expand on this historically informed and empirically oriented perspective, moving it towards that which Foucault refers to as the "intrication of men and things". Lemke adds: "To that end I intend to identify systematic links between Foucault's analysis of government and insights from science and technology studies." The conceptual suggestion of a "Government of Things", according to Lemke, avoids the narrow understanding of a concept of government focussed purely on human beings and furthermore aims to make a substantial contribution to a materialistic analysis of political processes and structures.

Since his appointment in 2008, Lemke has led a series of projects, funded by third parties, including an international collaborative research project on the social and political implications of the use of DNA analysis in immigration procedures in various European states. He has also been heavily involved in the University's own administration.  Lemke was Managing Director of the Institute for the Basic Principles of Social Sciences and Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. The profile of Lemke fits perfectly with the "Magnum Opus" programme of the Volkswagen Foundation. The aim of this initiative is to provide professors from the Humanities and Social Sciences, who have proved themselves through outstanding work, with the freedom to focus all their attention on challenging scientific work. The work of the Frankfurt sociologist was first recognised by the Volkswagen Foundation in 2008. Lemke's book "The Genetic Police. Forms and Fields of Genetic Discrimination" received translation funding from the Foundation and is now also available in an extended English version.

Personal profile

Thomas Lemke studied Political Science, Sociology and Law in Frankfurt, Southampton and Paris and in 1996 earned his doctorate at the Goethe University with a thesis on Michel Foucault's concept of power. Following his doctorate, Lemke worked as an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences at the University of Wuppertal, where he habilitated in 2006.  For many years he worked at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, and as a visiting researcher at Goldsmiths College in London and at New York University. Lemke also held visiting professorships at the Copenhagen Business School and the University of New South Wales in Sydney. In 2007 he was awarded a Heisenberg scholarship from DFG, which was converted into a Heisenberg professorship one year later. Since September 2008, Thomas Lemke has been Professor of Sociology with a focus on "Biotechnology, Nature and Society" at the Faculty of Social Sciences and since last year is also Honorary Professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

In his research and his teaching, Lemke has primarily focussed on the conditions, context and consequences of bioscientific knowledge and biotechnical innovation. A major focus of his work was the analysis of genetic discourses and practices. He has published several books on the effects of genetic knowledge on self-image, health concepts and prevention policies, and together with his colleague, Katharina Liebsch, he produced the first systematic study of the practice of genetic discrimination in Germany.

Information: Prof. Dr. Thomas Lemke, Institute for Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Westend Campus, Tel. (069) 798 36664, lemke@em.uni-frankfurt.de, www.fb03.uni-frankfurt.de/45646661/tlemke?legacy_request=1

Photo available to download at: www.uni-frankfurt.de/53929509

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