Brain pacemaker developers win Erwin Schrödinger Prize

14 August 2005

Essen/Bonn, Germany. Researchers from Cologne University and the Jülich Research Centre have won the 2005 Erwin Schrödinger Prize for the development of a brain pacemaker for treating neurological disorders.

Prof. Dr. Dr. Peter A. Tass from the Research Centre Jülich and Prof. Dr. Volker Sturm from the University of Cologne have been awarded the Science Prize of the Donors' Association — the Erwin Schrödinger Prize — for their development of a brain pacemaker for the treatment of nervous disorders such as Parkinson's Disease. The prize worth 50,000 euros is conferred annually for outstanding interdisciplinary research.

Prof. Peter Tass, physician, mathematician and physicist, heads the  Magnetoencephalography and Brain Pacemakers Research Group at the Institute of Medicine of the Research Centre Jülich; Prof. Volker Sturm is a physician and Director of the Clinic for Stereotaxis and Functional Neurosurgery at the University of Cologne.

"This year's prizewinners have succeeded excellently in combining mathematics, physics and medicine in a cross-disciplinary approach. This enabled them to develop a therapy to specifically counteract certain pathological processes in Parkinson's patients," explained Prof. Dr. Johanna Stachel, Dean of the Faculty of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Heidelberg and jury member. Dr. Arend Oetker, President of the Donors' Association, will present the Schrödinger Prize on the occasion of the Helmholtz Association Annual General Assembly being held in Berlin on 17 November 2005.

Parkinson's Disease is one of the most common nervous system disorders. Germany has some 150,000 Parkinson's patients. However, many cases are not identified; estimates reckon that 250,000 to 400,000 people are actually affected by the disease. Certain brain nerve cells in Parkinson's patients transmit incorrect signals. While healthy nerve cells transmit their signals specifically and in sequence from cell to cell in a domino-like effect, the nerve cells in a specific region of a sufferer's brain fire their signals synchronously, i.e. all at the same time. This results in patients having difficulties with their fine motor skills. Their hands shake strongly, simple activities like tying shoelaces, buttoning up clothing or writing become impossible. Later patients become stiff and all their actions are slower. And, finally, the patient is unable to move.

In many Parkinson's patients, certain brain cells do not produce enough of the neurotransmitter dopamine (a chemical messenger), and sometimes fail to produce any at all. In healthy people, dopamine blocks the nerve cells and ensures that they do not transmit their messages all at once. Treatment with dopamine helps many patients for a limited amount of time only and then is no longer effective or often leads to massive side effects.

The only treatment presently available to such patients is deep brain stimulation. This method involves neurosurgeons implanting small electrodes into the patient's brain. These transmit electrical impulses at high frequencies into the diseased brain region. That suppresses the nerve impulses. In the past, the electrical stimulation involved "continuous fire". This type of brain pacemaker treatment has meanwhile become a highly-effective standard treatment in patients for whom medication no longer provides relief. However, even this method has its limitations. Some patients fail to respond to this treatment or suffer side effects. Others find that the therapeutic effect fades or disappears completely in the course of the treatment.

Prof. Tass and his staff simulated the synchronous firing of the affected brain areas in mathematical models. Using methods from mathematics and physics, they developed stimulation techniques which use the self-organisational processes of the neuron chains and so are particularly effective and compatible.

Their newly-acquired insights enabled the scientists to develop a new method of brain stimulation that delivers individual electrical impulses to various groups of nerve cells as required. This method does not suppress the nerve impulses as in the case of conventional implants, but rather desynchronises them. As the successful first clinical trials carried out together with the research partner Prof. Sturm at the University Hospital Cologne demonstrated, the tremors that patients with Parkinson's or MS experience are better suppressed and only require a much lower stimulation current. This is why the scientists expect that this mild but very efficient modulation of nerve cell activity will cause fewer side effects in long-term application. Furthermore, the method also seems to provide a ray of hope for the treatment of other neurological or psychiatric disorders.

The scientists from Jülich plan to form a company that will prepare and produce the new brain pacemaker for clinical application. The medical ward opened in June at the Research Centre Jülich supports the research work of Professor Tass. Jülich is the first non-university research facility in Germany to run such a ward. And this will enable the doctors at Jülich and Cologne to further optimise and advance the use of their high-performance devices in neurological and psychiatric research.

Further information

Institut für Medizin, Forschungszentrum Jülich (Institute for Medicine,  Research Centre Jülich):

Klinik für Neurochirugie, Universität Köln (Clinic for Stereotaxis and Functional Neurosurgery, Cologne University):

Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft (Donors' Association for the Promotion of Sciences and Humanities in Germany) has a membership of more than 4,000 companies and private individuals plus 360 foundations. The Science Prize awarded by the Donors' Association is conferred in six categories in cooperation with six major science and research organisations. In the case of the "Erwin Schrödinger Prize" awarded in cooperation with the Helmholtz Association, the priority focus is on interdisciplinary collaboration. Erwin Schrödinger (1887 – 1961) was a Nobel Laureate for Physics whose work had a sustained influence on the development of Biology.

The Helmholtz Association is the largest scientific research organisation in Germany, with 15 Research Centres, 24,000 staff and an annual budget of around 2.2 billion euros.

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