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
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.
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. www.helmholtz.de