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Schrödinger Prize goes to Jülich and Cologne

Brain researchers Prof. Tass and Prof. Sturm honoured for Parkinson's therapy

[2. August 2005]

Jülich, 2 August 2005 - Prof. Dr. Dr. Peter A. Tass from Research Centre Jülich and Prof. Dr. Volker Sturm from the University of Cologne have been awarded the Erwin Schrödinger Prize for a deep brain pacemaker for the treatment of nervous diseases such as Parkinson's disease. The prize endowed with 50,000 euros is awarded annually by the Founders' Association for German Science for outstanding interdisciplinary research at the Helmholtz Centres.

"We are absolutely delighted that the prestigious Schrödinger Prize comes to Jülich for the second time", declared Dorothee Dzwonnek, Vice-Chairwoman of the Board of Directors of Research Centre Jülich. "The prize underlines the strength of the Research Centre: multidisciplinary research across discipline and institute boundaries." The prize will be presented by Dr. Arendt Oetker, President of the Founders' Association, on the occasion of the Annual Meeting of the Helmholtz Association in Berlin on 17 November 2005. Three years ago, three Jülich scientists - also together with colleagues from Cologne - received the Schrödinger Prize for the efficiency increase of surfactants.

The medical scientist, mathematician and physicist Tass heads the working group "Magnetoencephalography and Brain Pacemakers" of the Institute of Medicine at Research Centre Jülich, the medical scientist Sturm is director of the Hospital for Stereotaxy and Functional Neurosurgery of the University of Cologne.

Parkinson's is one of the most frequent diseases of the nervous system. In Germany, there are about 150,000 patients suffering from Parkinson's disease. However, many cases are not recorded, so that estimates assume that 250,000 to 400,000 persons are affected. In patients suffering from Parkinson's disease certain nerve cells of the brain signalize wrongly. Whereas healthy nerve cells selectively and successively pass their signals on from one cell to the next, similar to the domino effect, in diseased persons the nerve cells of a certain brain region fire synchronously, that means all at the same time. As a consequence, the patient has difficulties in controlling his fine motor skills: the hands tremble strongly, simple activities such as doing up one's shoes, buttoning up one's clothes or writing become impossible.

In the case of many Parkinson's patients, certain cells in the brain do not produce enough of the dopamine neurotransmitter or do not produce it at all. Dopamine mainly inhibits the nerve cells in a healthy person and ensures that not all the cells give off their signals at the same time. Medication with dopamine helps many patients only for a limited time and then shows no effect any more or even severe side effects. Up to the present, these people have only been helped by the treatment method of deep brain stimulation, where neurologists implant a small electrode in the patient, which gives off high-frequency current pulses to the diseased brain region. This suppresses the nerve impulses. Electrical stimulation has so far been effected as "sustained fire".

Tass and his co-workers have simulated the brain regions affected in mathematical models and, using methods of nonlinear dynamics and statistical physics, have developed stimulation techniques that are particularly effective and gentle due to the utilization of self-organization processes. The newly acquired findings enabled the scientists to develop a new brain stimulation technique, which sends single electrical impulses as required to different groups of nerve cells. In this process, the nerve impulses are not suppressed as in the case of conventional implants, but rather get out of step, that is to say become desynchronized. Successful clinical testing together with the research partner Sturm at the Cologne university hospital has shown for patients with Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis that trembling is suppressed better and with much less stimulation current. It may therefore be expected that this mild, but very efficient, modulation of nervecell activity will cause fewer side effects in continuous application.

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Prof. Dr. Peter A. Tass

Photograph: Forschungszentrum Jülich

Contact for press:

Annette Stettien
Science writer
Forschungszentrum Jülich
52425 Jülich
Tel. 02461 61-2388, Fax 02461 61-4666