May 16, 2013

Caroni publication named as one of the most influential in 25 years

A publication of Pico Caroni was named one of the most influential publications in the 25-year-long history of Neuron. The publication identified Nogo-A as an inhibitor of neurite growth and prompted numerous studies aimed at clarifying its role in regeneration after spinal cord injuries.

As the renowned journal Neuron is celebrating its 25th anniversary in science publishing, it is highlighting publications that over the years have seminally influenced neuroscience. The first publication Neuron highlights is from Pico Caroni a group leader at the FMI. In the first issue of Neuron in 1988, Pico Caroni together with Martin Schwab reported results on a novel protein eventually named Nogo-A. They showed how this component of myelin, the sheath that insulates neurons in the central nervous system, prevents long distance growth of neurites. As Neuron states the publication of Pico Caroni and Martin Schwab “begged the question of whether interfering with Nogo activity could promote axonal regeneration after injury” and “set the stage for numerous studies aimed a clarifying Nogo’s role in the CNS”.

While Martin Schwab pursued these questions further, Pico Caroni, as he built up his own research group, shifted his research focus to neuronal plasticity and how it relates to learning and behavior. He and his team are particularly interested in mechanisms determining the plasticity of defined neuronal circuits, as they may inform us about principles of learning, adaptation, and resilience to disease in the nervous system. He is also interested in the mechanisms of disease in neurodegeneration.

A conversation with Pico Caroni

Even though you shifted focus, has this publication shaped your subsequent research projects?
Yes, in at least two ways. First, it strongly suggested to us that structural plasticity of neuronal connectivity in the adult had to have important roles in the absence of any lesion since recent evolution had invented a way to restrict such plasticity in higher vertebrates (but for example not yet in fishes, and only partially in amphibians). That is what we then set out to investigate at the FMI. The second way was to draw our attention to the obvious but frequently overseen fact that important processes in biology are regulated by both positive and negative mechanisms. That helped us to resist focusing on just individual positive or negative molecular factors, and instead direct our attention to the actual biological processes and their functional relevance.

What are the biggest changes you see in neuroscience research since this publication?
Many of the main changes have been driven by technological advances: in imaging, physiology, molecular biology, and genetic control of defined neurons. As the tools have become more powerful neurobiologists could investigate and manipulate identified neurons, individually and as ensembles, within defined circuits and systems, in behaving animals. With these recent developments, aiming for a mechanistic understanding of important brain functions has become a realistic goal. This new excitement is also reflected in the presidential initiative on the function of brain circuits in the U.S. Progress has been tremendous, but we are still many decades away from understanding the brain.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in your current field?
There are many, and we might not even know yet about the most important ones. One major challenge is to understand how ensembles of neurons in different parts of the brain encode and transmit biologically meaningful information. Another major challenge is to understand how combinations of genomes and learning processes produce the distinct individuals of a species. And perhaps the most important one might be to translate the growing understanding about the brain into tangible progress in mental health and treatment of psychiatric diseases.

» More on Pico Caroni
» Neuron Anniversary

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