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Heisenberg Professorship for Johannes Letzkus

The researcher is working on key mechanisms behind the flexibility and computational power of the brain

Freiburg, Aug 03, 2020

Heisenberg Professorship for Johannes Letzkus

Johannes Letzkus. Photo: private

The University of Freiburg senate has voted to establish a new Heisenberg professorship, approved by the German Research Foundation (DFG), for Dr. Johannes Letzkus. The DFG funding will be available for up to five years and, in the case of a positive interim evaluation, will enable him to take up a permanent professorship at the Institute of Physiology at the University of Freiburg. Letzkus, who took up the professorship on 1 August 2020, is investigating neuronal inhibition, which is a central mechanism for the flexibility and computational power of the brain.

The human brain enables us to precisely perceive our environment, stores memories of facts and experiences, and reliably coordinates even complex motor skills such as playing the piano. In addition, these processes are constantly and flexibly adapted to the conditions in which we currently find ourselves. This flexibility, explains Letzkus, outperforms even the latest artificial intelligence algorithms many times over. Working with his team at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt am Main, he has spent several years investigating how this performance and flexibility is achieved. The researchers are focusing on a small group of nerve cells that control their partner neurons by inhibition. Letzkus discovered that a short-term reduction of this inhibition is an essential network mechanism for learning and memory, which plays a central role in different areas of the brain and for various learning tasks. Using optogenetic methods, which can be used to specifically alter the activity of neurons using light, the researchers were moreover able to directly prove that the loss of inhibition is necessary for the learning process, and that enhancing it can even improve learning.

In the coming years, Letzkus aims to broaden the focus of his research at the Freiburg Medical Faculty. “In the past, we have mainly investigated learning tasks in order to better understand memory formation itself. However, this work has increasingly made us realize that experiences and expectations are very likely an integral part of all our perception of the environment.” A current working hypothesis assumes that these signals, which are referred to as top-down information, are continuously compared with input from the environment in order to enable sensory perception, Letzkus says. Dysregulation of these processes could furthermore contribute to diseases such as autism and schizophrenia. Letzkus and his team will use a combination of state-of-the-art neuroscientific methods to investigate the hypothesis that perception is an active and generative process.

Johannes Letzkus studied biology at the University of Mainz and received his doctorate at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. He worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Basel, Switzerland. From 2013 he was a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt am Main. He has received various awards such as the Pfizer Research Prize, and his work was supported by a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC).

Working group website

Dr. Johannes Letzkus
Institute of Physiology I
Faculty of Medicine
University of Freiburg


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Photo: private