Get to Know Your Brain: EMPIRIS Award 2016 Goes to Neuroscientist Lisa Traunmüller
Researcher Lisa Traunmüller examines processes in the brain that influence the neuronal flow of information. In a conversation with Credit Suisse, the young academic describes her work and its importance.
Credit Suisse: Ms. Traunmüller, you have been awarded for your research about the development of neuronal networks. Can you briefly describe your work to us?
Lisa Traunmüller: Professor Peter Scheiffele's group at the University of Basel examines the molecular processes responsible for the development of synapses, which are the links between neurons. Synapses play an important part in the flow of information in the brain. In our research, we try to find out more about how neuronal networks develop and work. We concentrate on a process called alternative splicing. Put simply, during this process, several different proteins can be formed from one and the same gene sequence. A range of gene products, in other words. We have dedicated ourselves to the question of whether alternative splicing can influence the development and function of neuronal networks.
What have you examined for this?
There are different proteins that regulate alternative splicing. One of them is called SLM2. At present, not much is known about this regulator. But we do know that SLM2 can control the properties of neurexins. There are a total of three neurexin genes, from which a range of gene products are formed through alternative splicing. The gene products of neurexins are located directly on the synapse and ensure that the neurons are properly networked.
Can you explain to us what influence this has on brain function and performance?
Genetic studies on humans have shown that mutations in the neurexin-1 gene are a risk factor for developing autism or schizophrenia. Since we are mainly focusing on the neuronal links, we are trying to better understand the neuronal consequences of mutations such as in the neurexin-1 gene.
How do you go about doing this?
We want to find out what exactly goes wrong when the neuronal flow of information is impaired by mutations. That is why one of the things we have examined is the plasticity of synapses in the hippocampus, which is a central switchboard in the brain that controls our behavior and memory. The flow of information in the brain is enabled by the interaction between synapses. For stimulus conduction or for learning processes, synapses need to be plastic, so that they can change according to the situation. Plasticity therefore plays a central role in memory formation.
We know very little about the processes in our brain. That is why the best projects for me are those that pose new questions.
What methods do you use?
Several molecular biology methods and electrophysiology. This is a sub-area of neurophysiology that deals with electrochemical signal transmission in the nervous system. We also use behavioral studies on mice. Here, we tested for behavioral differences in mice that have had SLM2 genetically removed. It turned out that these mice have problems behaving properly in new environments, for example. Doctors have often observed similar behavioral disorders in humans with autism.
And you will now dedicate yourself to these questions?
Next we will try to find out what influence alternative splicing of neurexins has in different cell types in the brain. This study largely dealt with synapses that have a stimulating function. However, there are also neurons with inhibiting synapses. Ideally, there should be a balance between stimulating and inhibiting neurons; often, with diseases such as autism or schizophrenia, there isn't one—or it is deregulated.
What fascinates you personally about the research?
We know very little about the processes in our brain. That is why the best projects for me are those that pose new questions. The brain has always fascinated me. At the age of 16, it was already clear to me that I wanted to study molecular biology. During my studies in Vienna, it emerged that I wanted to find out more about the structure of the brain and what happens in the synapses. Then I had the good fortune of becoming part of Professor Peter Scheiffele's group in the Biozentrum at the University of Basel. For me, a prize such as the EMPIRIS Award is of course particularly nice, because it shows how much my work is appreciated and encourages me.