February 7, 2013

Meet Johannes Letzkus

Johannes Letzkus, an SNF Ambizione postdoctoral fellow in Andreas Lüthi’s group, is researching the processes that enable us to fear. His latest publication has received a lot of attention in the scientific community because it clearly shows that the largest and most highly developed area of the brain, the neocortex, is selectively required when complex stimuli are learned during fear conditioning. Today, he has been honored by the Pfizer Foundation with the “Pfizer Forschungspreis”.

Q: Johannes your research into the neuronal processes that enable us to fear has received a lot of attention in the scientific community. What makes this research so interesting?
A: Our research investigates the neuronal mechanisms of fear learning, a behavioral paradigm that is both a model for how memories are laid down in the brain in general, and that also captures many of the processes which are dysregulated in human anxiety disorders. In the current study we found that neocortex, the largest and most highly-developed brain region, plays an active and essential role in fear learning. This came as a surprise since most previous studies concluded that neocortex is not necessary for this form of learning. Our latest research now clearly shows that neocortex is selectively required when complex stimuli are learned, which are much closer to natural stimuli than the ones used in most previous research. Moreover, when we looked at the neuronal activity patterns in neocortex, we found that a certain type of neuron is selectively activated during learning, and that we can abolish learning of the animal when we interfere with this activity. In summary, I think that this combination of insights at the level of brain areas, neuronal circuits and behavior is what defines our research.

Q: Untangling these processes in the brain is everything but straight forward. What is the biggest challenge for you to tackle these questions?
A: Some years ago I would have said that the available methods are the biggest obstacle to a better understanding of brain functions. Since then, neuroscience research has seen the introduction of several new and powerful techniques, such as 2-photon microscopy, viral vectors and optogenetics, which have greatly enhanced our experimental possibilities. Yet we are still not able to perform experiments giving us detailed insights into the neuronal mechanisms mediating a brain function like learning in a completely natural setting. To be able to perform mechanistic analyses, we have to reduce a brain function to a tractable paradigm, and the biggest challenge to me is to do this without sacrificing the relevance of the results we obtain.

Q: Your research is really pushing the boundaries of our knowledge of the processes in the brain. How do you stay abreast and develop your working hypothesis?
It is of course crucial to read the current publications, and to attend scientific meetings whenever possible. Another very important way to stay up to date and develop new ideas are discussions with other scientists. The FMI is a great place to do Neuroscience also because of the large number of outstanding colleagues, who are always open to discuss the latest publications, results and ideas. Finally, I invest a lot of time to carefully think through the conclusions from our experiments, something I like to do in nature while hiking or fishing.

Q: What motivates you to pursue these challenging questions?
A: I have always been deeply fascinated by biology. During my studies at university, I became more and more interested in neuroscience, both because the brain is the most complex biological system we know, and also because higher brain functions are at the core of human nature. Brain disorders are a second source of motivation. I know from experience in my own family how extremely debilitating they can be. Even though our research investigates the fundamental neuronal mechanisms of brain functions such as emotion and learning, I therefore hope that this knowledge will contribute to the development of better treatments for psychiatric conditions.

Q: Scientific publications are one way of recognition another may be awards. You have received the Pfizer Award. What does this mean to you?
A: This prize is a tremendous recognition for me and all my colleagues who contributed to the publication. I certainly didn’t expect the award, given the many excellent labs working on similar topics in Switzerland, but was all the happier when I learned the news. The type of research we are doing is risky and takes a long time. It is thus great to see everybody’s commitment and perseverance recognized by such a prestigious award. In addition, this prize is also very important to me because it increases the chances of obtaining funding for my future research, which I will carry out at the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt starting this summer.

» More about the Pfizer Forschungspreis
» More about fear research at the FMI

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