Three Researchers at Freie Universität Receive Grants from the European Research Council

ERC Advanced Grants for Biochemist Volker Haucke, Science Historian Mathieu Ossendrijver, and Linguist Friedemann Pulvermüller

No 060/2020 from Mar 31, 2020

Researchers at Freie Universität Berlin have received three prestigious ERC Advanced Grants from the European Research Council (ERC). Volker Haucke, a professor at the Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie and at Freie Universität Berlin, is receiving the funding for his research on the assembly of synapses. Science historian and Assyriologist Mathieu Ossendrijver, who conducts research in the group funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), "Rethinking Oriental Despotism" at the Department of History and Cultural Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, has received the grant for his project on the intercultural expansion of astronomy and astrology in antiquity. Friedemann Pulvermüller, a professor of linguistics and neuroscience of language at the Department of Philosophy, Freie Universität Berlin, and the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, is receiving an ERC Advanced Grant for a project on the material foundations and mechanisms of language learning and the ability to abstract. The three researchers will each receive up to 2.5 million euros over five years. With the ERC Advanced Grant format, the European Research Council offers funding for established researchers. In this funding round, of 1881 submitted proposals across Europe, 185 were approved for grants.

ABOUT THE PROJECTS

Volker Haucke: SynapseBuild

Our ability to remember the first day at school or the birth of our child is based - as most other functions of our brain - on the communication between nerve cells at specialized contact points called synapses. At synapses, signals are transmitted from one nerve cell to another. During this process, the nerve cell upstream releases messenger substances (neurotransmitters) from vesicles of the presynapse into the cleft between both nerve cells. The messengers proceed to the postsynaptic part of the nerve cell downstream, where they bind to receptors that pass the stimulus on.

During decades of research, a wealth of knowledge has been accumulated on the mechanisms by which neurotransmitters stored in synaptic vesicles are released at the presynaptic membrane. In contrast, we know much less about the formation of synaptic vesicles during the development of the brain and about the assembly of the complex molecular machinery, which forms a functioning presynaptic membrane. Where and how the precursors of synaptic vesicles form within the neuronal cell body, is not understood. Likewise, it remains unknown in which way these vesicles are transported to the presynaptic membrane and which maturation steps they undergo to transform into functional units for neurotransmitter release. Finally, the coordination and adjustment of the whole process remains unresolved.  The awarded project SynapseBuild is based on the molecular analysis of human nerve cells, which are generated from stems cells genetically modified via CRISPR technology.

Volker Haucke is director at the Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP), a professor of pharmacology at Freie Universität Berlin, and a member of the excellence cluster NeuroCure. His research focuses on the formation and function of synapses as well as on deciphering cellular mechanisms, which regulate the equilibrium between cell growth and the degeneration of metabolic products. Gaining knowledge on such mechanisms is fundamental for understanding diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and neurodegeneration. Volker Haucke aims at developing new pharmacological approaches for treating such diseases. Internationally, he holds a leading position in research on molecular celland neurobiology and has received numerous scientific awards - amongst others the Feldberg Prize 2020.

Volker Haucke, Email: haucke@fmp-berlin.de , www.leibniz-fmp.de/haucke

Dr. Dr. Mathieu Ossendrijver: Ancient Astral Science in Transformation

The project abbreviated as ZODIAC focuses on the intercultural distribution of the zodiac and the related innovative astronomical and astrological practices, theories, and image programs from Babylon to Egypt and in the Greco-Roman world between the 5th century BC and the 3rd century AD.

The introduction of the zodiac triggered an ultimately global and enduring transformation of astral science and other realms of scholarship and had an impact to this day. The zodiac became the central concept for interpreting, predicting, computing, and representing celestial phenomena. The associated "mathematical turn" has shaped scholarly and cultural practices ever since, and horoscopic astrology is omnipresent around the globe. While originating in Babylonia, zodiacal astral science was transformed through interactions with Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and other ancient cultures. Due to its entanglement with social practices, religious doctrines, philosophical theories, and iconographic traditions, this is an innovation that shaped science and culture globally but lacks a satisfactory explanation.

The aim of the project of Mathieu Ossendrijver is to reconstruct and explain the spread of the zodiac and the associated practices and theories. How did these innovations emerge and transform through cross-cultural transmission? How could they take root in Egypt, the Greco-Roman world. and other ancient cultures’ What explains their enormous success’ In the ZODIAC project, an interdisciplinary team of researchers will try to answer these questions with the hypothesis that zodiacal astral science offered universally appealing, adaptable solutions to social, religious, and political needs that emerged in multi-cultural empires.

Mathieu Ossendrijver studied astrophysics and theoretical physics in Utrecht and ancient Near Eastern studies in Freiburg. He earned a doctorate in astrophysics in 1996 and in ancient Near Eastern studies in  2010. Ossendrijver was a researchers at the Kiepenheuer Institute for Solar Physics. Since 2005 he has held various positions in ancient studies research in Leiden, the Netherlands, Tübingen, New York, and Berlin. He was a member of the TOPOI Cluster of Excellence and from 2013 to 2018 a professor of the history of science at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. In 2019 he was a Fellow at the Einstein Center Cronoi. Mathieu Ossendrijver is currently a Senior Research Fellow in the research group "Rethinking Oriental Despotism2 at Freie Universität Berlin.

Dr. Dr. Mathieu Ossendrijver, Email: mathieu.ossendrijver@posteo.net  

Dr. Friedemann Pulvermüller: Material Constraints Enabling Human Cognition

How can humans build vocabularies of tens and hundreds of thousands of words, whereas our closest evolutionary relatives typically use below 100? How can young children link so many symbols to meanings without special instruction and then, after brief learning, use them to express their wishes, feelings, views, and fears’ How can grounding and interpretability of abstract symbols be anchored biologically?

It is clear that these abilities must be related to our brain - or more precisely, the differences that exist between our brain and the brains of other species. But what are the main distinguishing differences here? And how can cognitive differences explain such amazing things as human language, thinking, and behavior? Models replicating structural differences between human and nonhuman primate brains will help delineate mechanisms underlying specifically human cognitive capacities. Key experiments will validate critical model predictions and new neurophysiological data will be applied to further improve the biologically-constrained networks.

Friedemann Pulvermüller is a professor of linguistics and neuroscience of language at the Department of Philosophy, Freie Universität Berlin, and the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. He studied biology and linguistics, earning doctorates in linguistics and psychology as well as a habilitation in medicine. In 1999 he was appointed a research professor at Cambridge, and in 2011 he moved to Freie Universität and became a professor at the Languages of Emotion Cluster of Excellence. His work in the MatCo is related to the Matters of Activity Cluster of Excellence based at Humboldt-Universität, which also focuses on the material foundations of cognition.

Dr. Friedemann Pulvermüller, Email: friedemann.pulvermuller@fu-berlin.de  

www.brainlang.fu-berlin.de  

Keywords

  • Biology, chemistry, pharmacy
  • History and cultural studies
  • Philosophy and humanities

Due to the spread of the coronavirus, all public events at Freie Universität Berlin have been canceled through July 20, 2020.


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