Molecule in the brain is important for remembering

Weinheim. May 23, 2013. As you are reading this text, astonishing things are happening in your brain: about 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, are busy receiving, processing and passing on information. The nerve cells have a structure like trees with branches and are interconnected by tiny contact points which transmit signals from one cell to the next. A key role in this process is played by the molecule VEGF D, previously only known as a growth factor for lymph and blood vessels. Neurobiologist Dr. Daniela Mauceri discovered this function of the molecule in 2011 in a team headed by Prof. Dr. Hilmar Bading at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Neurosciences of Heidelberg University. The molecule ensures that the tree-like structure of the neurons is preserved and therefore helps maintain key functions of the brain such as remembering and learning. This result could also be important for the future treatment of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other brain malfunctions. For this reason, Dr. Mauceri has been selected to receive the Karl Freudenberg Prize of the Freudenberg Group, which is to be presented during a ceremony at Heidelberg Academy of Sciences on May 25.

At 3 p.m. on May 24, Dr. Mauceri will be presenting her work to the public in the lecture hall of the Academy. “New knowledge is crucially important in science and technology,” says Dr. Jörg Böcking, Chief Technology Officer of the Freudenberg Group. “This is why the Freudenberg Group, as an innovative company active worldwide, supports young scientists who make a decisive contribution in their fields.”

The research results were published in the scientific journal “Neuron” in 2011. The main conclusion is that this molecule is a key regulator of brain functions; conversely, brain activity keeps concentrations of the molecule high. In the case of neurological disorders, concentrations of the molecule are not adequate, which is why brain malfunctions might take place. For example, they may have problems with their memories. Maintaining the right concentrations of this molecule could open up new paths in the development of effective treatments for brain malfunctions caused by disease or ageing. In the context of demographic change, this is a key step in scientific progress. “The patent is pending and the rights are held by the University,” says Dr. Mauceri. “This is an important requirement for attracting companies’ attention so that they can use the results to develop new drugs.”

When Mauceri is talking about her work, she gestures and laughs and her eyes sparkle brightly behind the lenses of her white-framed spectacles. “As a scientist, I’m the first person in the world to make a new discovery,” she says. “That’s just fantastic.” Inquisitiveness, enthusiasm and perseverance are the characteristics that have made the active neurobiologist with her Italian roots so successful. When she was in elementary school, she was already interested in how the body function. When she went to university, she was especially interested in processes in the brain. “I always wanted to understand exactly what was happening.” She was so enthusiastic about a  scientific presentation by Professor Bading that she decided to follow him to Heidelberg and to work there. “I still have so many ideas and there are still so many exciting topics that need to be researched,” she says. “I would like to continue my research work, to become a professor, to head a team and to teach students. That’s the best job in the world!”

“It’s not my laboratory yet, but perhaps it will be in 10 years time,” says Dr. Daniela Mauceri, laughing. Although this may just be a joke, it is also clear that she knows where she is going. She wants to publish results, to earn a reputation as a scientist and to become a professor. She does not just work in science; she is a scientist through and through. On a typical working day, Dr. Mauceri sits in the laboratory, carries out measurements and evaluates results. Then she reads specialist publications, analyses images of neurons under the microscope and assigns numbers to them. Often, this is rather a lonely job.

As a post-doctoral member of the team headed by the renowned scientist Prof. Dr. Hilmar Bading, Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Neurosciences of Heidelberg University, she spent two years investigating the role of the molecule VEGF D in the brain. “The real work was to find scientific proof – that took a long time,” she says. The fact that she has now been awarded the Karl Freudenberg Prize of the Freudenberg Group for her work means a lot to her. “The prize is a recognition of my work. It is good to receive an award if you’ve spent so long working on something,” says Dr. Daniela Mauceri. “For this project, I left Milan, my family and my friends. My success confirms that I took the right decision.” An espresso machine is in evidence on the desk of the lively young scientist from Milan. The walls are decorated by black and white photos from cinema classics, including Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. “I love the movies, cooking and shopping – especially for shoes – after all I do come from Milan,” she says, smiling.