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Mapping the Brain: Reconstructing the Cerebral Cortex

11/3/2010 | German House New York

Mapping the Brain: Reconstructing the Cerebral Cortex

Nobel Prize Laureate Dr. Bert Sakmann presented his research of creating a three-dimensional atlas of nerve cell bodies, dendrites, and axons.

Dr. Bert Sakmann, who together with Erwin Neher was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for their invention of the patch clamp technique, presented his research at the German Center for Research and Innovation on November 3, 2010.

Dr. Sakmann’s presentation focused on the creation of a three-dimensional map of the normal rodent brain. As the Inaugural Scientific Director of the Max Planck Florida Institute, Dr. Sakmann conducts a program dedicated to the precise structural arrangement of nerves in the cerebral cortex with the intention of creating a three-dimensional atlas of nerve cell bodies, dendrites and axons.

During his lecture, approximately 60 scientists and other interested participants, learned that whiskers are instrumental in a rat’s decision-making process. “We want to understand the anatomical pathways that are active in the cortex when making a decision,” Dr. Sakmann said. In experiments, where rats need to decide in the dark whether or not to jump over a gap, he discovered that simple behavior activates a single cortical column in the vibrassal cortex. Using their whiskers, rats measure the width of the gap which leads to increased electrical brain activity: “We found out that there is a topographical relation between a single whisker and a single cortical column in the brain,” Dr. Sakmann said. Most of the rats’ behavior is guided by their whiskers: “Rats do not cross the gap when the whiskers are trimmed, no matter how hungry they are,” he said. Once rats cannot rely on their whiskers, the anatomical pathways to the cortical columns decrease. The effect is reversed once the whiskers grow back. Some of Dr. Sakmann’s results demonstrated that decision-making can be controlled by input to a single cortical column, that whisking and touching are represented in the cortex by activity, and that these insights enable the reconstruction of a cortical functional map based on the signaling in the brain. With these insights, Dr. Sakmann aims to decipher inhibitory cell column structure and to identify pathological signaling.

One of the goals of the Max Planck Florida Institute’s project is to lay a foundation for identifying anatomical changes that occur in neurological diseases. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, for example, it is still unknown which compartments of the cells are affected when the disease first appears.

For more information on the Max Planck Florida Institute, please visit

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  • Featured Speakers

    • Dr. Horst Freitag (Welcome Remarks)

      Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany, New York

    • Dr. Claudia Hillinger (Welcome Remarks)

      Vice President for Institute Development, Max Planck Florida Institute (MPFI)

    • Dr. Bert Sakmann

      Nobel Prize Laureate; Inaugural Scientific Director, Research Group Leader, Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience