Press releases


Oct 14 2019

Brain imaging study investigates why cognitive abilities differ between individuals 

Wired for intelligence: brain networks more stable in individuals with higher cognitive abilities

FRANKFURT. The interconnections and communication between different regions of the human brain influence our behaviour in many ways. This is also true for individual differences in higher cognitive abilities. The brains of more intelligent individuals are characterised by temporally more stable interactions in neural networks. This is the result of a recent study conducted by Dr Kirsten Hilger and Professor Christian Fiebach from the Department of Psychology and Brain Imaging Center of Goethe University Frankfurt in collaboration with Dr Makoto Fukushima and Professor Olaf Sporns from Indiana University Bloomington, USA. The study was published online in the scientific journal 'Human Brain Mapping' on 6th October. 

Intelligence and its neurobiological basis 
Various theories have been proposed to explain the differences in different individuals' cognitive abilities, including neurobiological models. For instance, it has been proposed that more intelligent individuals make stronger use of certain brain areas, that their brains generally operate more efficiently, or that certain brain systems are better wired in smarter people. Only recently have methodological advances made it possible to also investigate the temporal dynamics of human brain networks, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). An international team of researchers from Goethe University and Indiana University Bloomington analysed fMRI scans of 281 participants to investigate how dynamic network characteristics of the human brain relate to general intelligence. 

Stability of brain networks as general advantage
The human brain has a modular organisation - it can be subdivided into different networks that serve different functions such as vision, hearing, or the control of voluntary behaviour. In their current study, Kirsten Hilger and colleagues investigated whether this modular organisation of the human brain changes over time, and whether or not these changes relate to individual differences in the scores that study participants achieved in an intelligence test. The results of the study show that the modular brain network organisation of more intelligent persons exhibited less fluctuations during the fMRI measurement session. This increased stability of brain network organisation was primarily found in brain systems that are important for the control of attention. 

Attention plays a key role
“The study of the temporal dynamics of human brain networks using fMRI is a relatively new field of research" says Hilger. She speculates: “The temporally more stable network organisation in more intelligent individuals could be a protective mechanism of the brain against falling into maladaptive network states in which major networks disconnect and communication may be hampered." She also stresses that it remains an open question how exactly these network properties influence cognitive ability: “At present, we do not know whether the temporally more stable brain connections are a source or a consequence of higher intelligence. However, our results suggest that processes of controlled attention – that is, the ability to stay focused and to concentrate on a task – may play an important role for general intelligence." 

Publication: Hilger, K., Fukushima, M., Sporns, O., & Fiebach, C. F. (2019). Temporal Stability of Functional Brain Modules Associated with Human Intelligence. Human Brain Mapping. (DOI:

Further information: Dr Kirsten Hilger, Department of Psychology, Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 6, D-60323 Frankfurt, Germany., Tel. +49 (0)160-3391686; see also the webpage of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at Goethe University:


Oct 11 2019

The Goethe University physics professor to be Andrews Professor of Astronomy at Dublin Trinity College

Luciano Rezzolla awarded prestigious honorary professorship

FRANKFURT. For his outstanding contributions in the field of astrophysics, Luciano Rezzolla, Professor for Astrophysics at Goethe University, will be appointed Andrews Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College in Dublin. Previously combined with the leadership of the Irish Dunsink Observatory, today the title is a prestigious honorary chair. The appointment of Luciano Rezzolla represents the first time the professorship will be given to a non-Irish person. 

“The Andrews Professor for Astronomy is a tremendous recognition of the excellence achieved in astrophysics research at Goethe University," says Luciano Rezzolla. “It's simultaneously a recognition of a paradigm change that has also taken place in Frankfurt, in which theoretical astrophysics and theoretical physics are being combined more and more in the quest for a deeper understanding of the universe. I am very happy that together with my team and many other colleagues in Frankfurt and Dublin, I have been able to use this potential to continue improving our research. 

“This title is a great honour, both for Luciano Rezzolla and for his team at the Institute for Theoretical Physics", says Simone Fulda, Vice President for Research and Academic Infrastructure at Goethe University. “The award illustrates the high value placed on physics within Goethe University research. We are quite proud of this and extend Luciano Rezzolla our warmest congratulations." 

The Andrews Professor for Astrophysics was established in 1774. The politician and provost of Trinity College, Francis Andrews, bequeathed £3,000 to build a new observatory in Dunsink. The first Andrews Professor was the mathematician and astronomer Henry Ussher, who was appointed in 1783. Between 1791 and 1921 the holder of the chair was also the “Royal Astronomer of Ireland". After remaining vacant between 1921 and 1984, the position was subsequently re-established as an honorary chair. With this appointment, Rezzolla follows in the footsteps of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, who held the position from 1827 to 1865, and after whom Hamiltonian mechanics was named. 

In addition to this honour, Rezzolla gained worldwide media attention in April of this year. As principal investigator of the “Black Hole Cam Project" (BHC Project), he and his colleagues made the observation of the hot plasma ring surrounding the black hole in the centre of the Galaxy M87 visible for the first time. The National Science Foundation, the US government agency for research funding, recognized the first image of black hole with a new prize: in 2019, the Diamond Achievement Award was given to the international team of the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, of which Professor Rezzolla is also a member. Rezzolla and his team at the Institute for Theoretical Physics were also awarded the Frankfurt Physics Science Prize. 


An image can be downloaded here:
Credit: Jürgen Lecher, Goethe University 

Further information: Professor Luciano Rezzolla, Institute for Theoretical Physics, Faculty of Physics, Riedberg Campus, Telephone: +49 69 798 47871,;


Oct 1 2019

Physicists at Goethe University measure miniscule effect with new super COLTRIMS apparatus / Publication in Nature Physics

Beyond Einstein: Mystery surrounding photon momentum solved

FRANKFURT. Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize for explaining the photoelectric effect: in its most intuitive form, a single atom is irradiated with light. According to Einstein, light consists of particles (photons) that transfer only quantised energy to the electron of the atom. If the photon's energy is sufficient, it knocks the electrons out of the atom. But what happens to the photon's momentum in this process? Physicists at Goethe University are now able to answer this question. To do so, they developed and constructed and new spectrometer with previously unattainable resolution. 

Doctoral student Alexander Hartung became a father twice during the construction of the apparatus. The device, which is three meters long and 2.5 meters high, contains approximately as many parts as an automobile. It sits in the experiment hall of the Physics building on Riedberg Campus, surrounded by an opaque, black tent inside which is an extremely high performing laser. Its photons collide with individual argon atoms in the apparatus, and thereby remove one electron from each of the atoms. The momentum of these electrons at the time of their appearance is measured with extreme precision in a long tube of the apparatus. 

The device is a further development of the COLTRIMS principle that was invented in Frankfurt and has meanwhile spread across the world: it consists of ionising individual atoms, or breaking up molecules, and then precisely determining the momentum of the particles. However, the transfer of the photon momentum to electrons predicted by theoretic calculations is so tiny that it was previously not possible to measure it. And this is why Hartung built the “super COLTRIMS". 

When numerous photons from a laser pulse bombard an argon atom, they ionise it. Breaking up the atom partially consumes the photon's energy. The remaining energy is transferred to the released electron. The question of which reaction partner (electron or atom nucleus) conserves the momentum of the photon has occupied physicists for over 30 years. “The simplest idea is this: as long as the electron is attached to the nucleus, the momentum is transferred to the heavier particle, i.e., the atom nucleus. As soon as it breaks free, the photon momentum is transferred to the electron," explains Hartung's supervisor, Professor Reinhard Dörner from the Institute for Nuclear Physics. This would be analogous to wind transferring its momentum to the sail of a boat. As long as the sail is firmly attached, the wind's momentum propels the boat forward. The instant the ropes tear, however, the wind's momentum is transferred to the sail alone. 

However, the answer that Alexander Hartung discovered through his experiment is – as is typical for quantum mechanics - more surprising. The electron not only receives the expected momentum, but additionally one third of the photon momentum that actually should have gone to the atom nucleus. The sail of the boat therefore “knows" of the impending accident before the cords tear and steals a bit of the boat's momentum. To explain the result more precisely, 

Hartung uses the concept of light as an electro-magnetic wave: “We know that the electrons tunnel through a small energy barrier. In doing so, they are pulled away from the nucleus by the strong electric field of the laser, while the magnetic field transfers this additional momentum to the electrons." Hartung used a clever measuring setup for the experiment. To ensure that the small additional momentum of the electron was not caused accidentally by an asymmetry in the apparatus, he had the laser pulse hit the gas from two sides: either from the right or the left, and then from both directions simultaneously, which was the biggest challenge for the measuring technique. This new method of precision measurement promises deeper understanding of the previously unexplored role of the magnetic components of laser light in atomic physics.

Images may be downloaded here:
Image 1: Photo of the COLTRIMS reaction microscope built by Alexander Hartung as part of his doctoral research in the experiment hall of the Faculty of Physics. Credit: Alexander Hartung
Image 2:Technical drawing of the newly constructed COLTRIMS reaction microscope. The drawing shows an intersection of the experimental construction. Individual gas atoms, which fly down through the vertical tube in the picture, are ionised by a highly intensive laser. The beam path of the laser is illustrated on the table in the back. The momenta of the electrons and ions that are produced in the reaction are measured with extreme precision by the horizontally depicted bronze-coloured spectrometer in the vacuum chamber. In this way, the effect of the miniscule momentum of the ionised laser light on the electrons can be studied precisely. Credit: Alexander Hartung 

Publication: A. Hartung, S. Eckart, S. Brennecke, J. Rist, D. Trabert, K. Fehre, M. Richter, H. Sann, S. Zeller, K. Henrichs, G. Kastirke, J. Hoehl, A. Kalinin, M. S. Schöffler, T. Jahnke, L. Ph. H. Schmidt, M. Lein, M. Kunitski, R. Dörner: Magnetic fields alter tunneling in strong-field ionization, in: Nature Physics, doi: 10.1038/s41567-019-0653-y. 

Further information: Professor Reinhard Dörner, Alexander Hartung, Institute for Nuclear Physics, Faculty of Physics, Riedberg Campus, Phone.: +49 69 798-47003 or -47019; Email: doerner[at] or hartung[at]


Sep 16 2019

Sleep or stop? The RIS neuron has both functions / Publication in Nature Communications

The sleep neuron in threadworms is also a stop neuron

FRANKFURT. The nervous system of the threadworm C. elegans is simple at first sight: it consists of 302 neurons, some of which, however, have several functions. The neuron “RIS", known as a sleep neuron, can therefore put the worm into a long sleep – or also just briefly stop its locomotion, as a group of scientists led by Goethe University have now discovered. 

Wagner Steuer Costa in the team of Alexander Gottschalk, Professor for Molecular Cell Biology and Neurobiochemistry, discovered the sleep neuron RIS a few years ago by coincidence – simultaneously with other groups. To understand the function of individual neurons in the plexus, the researchers use genetic engineering to cause them to produce light-sensitive proteins. With these “photo-switches", the neurons can be activated or turned off in the transparent worm using light radiation of a certain wavelength. “When we saw that the worm froze when this neuron was stimulated by light, we were quite amazed. It was the beginning of a study that took several years," Gottschalk recalls. 

The RIS neuron puts C. elegans to sleep when it is active for minutes or hours – for example after the shedding of the cuticle (a secreted form of skin) that is a process in the animal's development. It also sleeps in order to recover after experiencing cellular stress. On the other hand, the neuron serves to stop the worm during locomotion – for example, if it wants to change direction or to avoid danger. The neuron then slows down the animal's motion so that it has time to decide if it wants to continue crawling. In this case the neuron is only active for a few seconds. “Such stop neurons have only recently been discovered. This is the first one of its kind in a worm," explains Gottschalk. 

Interestingly, the axon of the RIS neuron is apparently branched, with the two branches having different functions, so that RIS not only slows motions but can also introduce backwards motion. This is reported by Gottschalk and his collaboration partners, Professor Ernst Stelzer from Goethe University, Professor Sabine Fischer from the University of Würzburg, researchers from the American Vanderbilt University in Nashville and KU Leuven in the current issue of “Nature Communications". 

“We think that neurons with a double function exist in numerous simple life forms such as the worm. In the course of evolution they were then assigned to two different systems in the brain and further developed," says Gottschalk. It's a theme that will certainly be found to recur once other nerve cells of the worm are better understood. “The nervous system of C. elegans can be viewed as a kind of evolutionary test bed. If it works there, it will be used again and further refined in more complex animals." 

The discovery of the double function of RIS is also an example of how a permanently connected neuronal network can be additionally operated by a “wireless" network of neuropeptides and neuromodulators. This enables several functional networks to be realised on a single anatomical network, enormously increasing the functionality of the worm's brain, as well as being very economical. “It should no longer be said that worm neurons are simple. Often, they can do more than mammalian neurons," says Gottschalk. 

Publication: Wagner Steuer Costa, Petrus Van der Auwera, Caspar Glock, Jana F. Liewald, Maximilian Bach, Christina Schüler, Sebastian Wabnig, Alexandra Oranth, Florentin Masurat, Henrik Bringmann, Liliane Schoofs, Ernst H.K. Stelzer, Sabine C. Fischer, Alexander Gottschalk: A GABAergic and peptidergic sleep neuron as a locomotion stop neuron with compartmentalized Ca2+ dynamics 

Images may be downloaded at:
Caption (1): The threadworm C. elegans. Credit: A. Gottschalk
Caption (2): The RIS neuron (green) in the throat of the threadworm C. elegans. Credit: Wagner Steuer Costa
Interesting videos can also be viewed on the Nature Communications website, e.g.. #7: 

Further information: Prof. Dr. Alexander Gottschalk, Molecular Cell Biology and Neurobiology and Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Faculty of Biochemistry, Chemistry and Pharmacy, and Buchmann Institute for Molecular Life Sciences, Riedberg Campus, Tel.: +49 069 798-42518 , Email:


Sep 12 2019

Ozone hole, fires in the Amazon, and gravity waves are focus of German research aircraft HALO

Climate change in the Southern Hemisphere 

FRANKFURT. On its mission “SouthTRAC", the German research aircraft HALO will investigate the southern atmosphere and its effects on climate change in September and November 2019. Researchers from Goethe University will also be on board. 

The most important goal of the first phase of the SouthTRAC (Transport and Composition of the Southern Hemisphere UTLS) campaign is to investigate gravity waves on the southern tip of South America and over Antarctica. The second phase of the campaign in November will focus on the exchange of air masses between the stratosphere and the troposphere. During the transfer flights between Europe and South America, the scientists will also investigate the influence of the current fires in the Amazon rainforest on climate. In addition to the team of the atmosphere researcher Professor Andreas Engel from Goethe University, researchers from the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), the research centre Jülich, and University Mainz have been in charge of the scientific planning. Groups from the Universities in Heidelberg and Wuppertal are also involved. 

Trace gases such as ozone and steam are effective greenhouse gases, and play an important role in climate change. Since the end of the 1980's, the Montreal Protocol regulates substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) because they thin out the ozone layer. It will take many decades, however, for the ozone layer to recover, especially the large ozone hole in Antarctica. In the campaign “SouthTRAC", researchers now want to investigate in detail what this means for climate change in the Southern Hemisphere. 

In addition to high levels of chlorine and bromine, the most important atmospheric requirements for the formation of the ozone hole above Antarctica are low temperatures and a reduced exchange of air masses with mid-latitudes. The Antarctic polar vortex is responsible for this. “We want to see how much chlorine and bromine is available to deplete the ozone in the lower stratosphere, especially in the polar vortex of the Southern Hemisphere, where the ozone hole is formed every year," explains Professor Andreas Engel. To do this, his group measures almost all relevant source gases. They pay special attention to short-lived substances that are highly variable and have hardly been quantified in the Southern Hemisphere so far. “We want to make data available so that chemical and climate models can more reliably portray the depletion of the ozone, the expected recovery of the stratospheric ozone, and the effects on climate," says the atmospheric researcher.

For this purpose, Professor Andreas Engel's team at the Institute for Atmosphere and Environment at Goethe University uses a gas chromatograph with mass spectrometer they developed themselves. This instrument can measure even traces of many chlorinated and brominated substances, although the measuring speed also has to be taken into account. On board a research aircraft things have to go quickly, because the resolution in time corresponds directly with the resolution in space. “At one to six minutes, depending on the substances, we're extremely fast for this measuring technique. In the lab, it takes almost five times as long. And everything we do in an aircraft has to be certified for air worthiness on top of it all. That requires a significant logistical effort," says Engel. 

In order to make these difficult measurements possible, some of which have to be carried out during a night shift, three to five members of the Institute for Atmosphere and Environment will be on location in Rio Grande on the southern tip of South America until the beginning of December, with a short break of three weeks in October. The measuring flights depart from here, and this is where the measuring instruments are taken care of as well. 

About HALO
The research aircraft HALO (High Altitude and Long Range) is a collaborative initiative of German environmental and climate research institutions. It is funded by grants from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the Heimholtz Association, the Max Planck Society, the Leibniz Association, the State of Bavaria, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), the research centre Jülich and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Images may be downloaded here:
Credit: See ending of file names.

Further information: Professor Andreas Engel, Institute for Atmosphere and Environment, Faculty of Geosciences, Riedberg Campus, phone: +49 69 798-40259,