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BNA Interview Series: Exploring Cognitive Neuronal Networks With Ileana Hanganu-Opatz

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At the British Neuroscience Association (BNA)’s Festival of Neuroscience in April 2019, we were lucky enough to sit down with some influential neuroscientists to discuss their work. We’ve assembled these transcripts into our BNA Interview Series. Read Ileana Hanganu-Opatz's interview below. 

Ileana Hanganu-Opatz leads the Research Unit on developmental neurophysiology at the Institute of Neuroanatomy, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf. She coordinates the Priority Program 1665 “Resolving and manipulating neuronal networks in the mammalian brain”. For almost two decades, Ileana has been investigating the mechanisms that control the maturation of neuronal networks involved in sensory and cognitive processing.

Ruairi Mackenzie (RM): Could you describe some of the mechanisms important for the development of functional neural networks that are involved in cognition?

Ileana Hanganu-Opatz (IH): We have just started to understand those mechanisms; we are at the beginning. To describe those mechanisms I would say we are getting the first insights and what we know is that, for example, in the sensory systems we have electrical activity patterns that coordinates a formation of topographical maps, like the barrels in the rodent somatosensory cortex or the ocular dominance columns in the visual cortex. In terms of development of cognitive or limbic circuits, the issue is much more complicated.  We have the knowledge that those circuits are also matured under the influence of electrical activity but in these systems the electrical activity is not generated by a stimulus, but it is intrinsically generated through the coupling of several brain areas. Besides activity, there are also many genetic factors that shape the maturation of the brain. So, just as an overview we have a lot of things to investigate and a lot of research needs to be done to get a proper answer to your question.

RM: In what ways can malfunction in these mechanisms disrupt normal cognitive development?

IH: We had very few experimental evidences to explain how this early development contributes to the full maturation of cognitive abilities later in life. It is known that development is one of the critical periods for how good we are later in our abilities of attention or memory.  However, if it comes now to really needle down the process behind this, we still don’t know so much.  So we did, in the past, an experiment where we interfered with the electrical activity early in life and then observed what is going on later and we observed that there is a huge effect of this manipulation early in life on the cognitive abilities of the animal - in this case, of the rodent.  We can hopefully translate this, one day, to make the link between abnormal brain development and mental disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

RM: What is the Priority Program 1665?

IH: This program was launched by the German Research Council in 2013 with the specific aim to bundle all the research activities regarding neural networks through the perspective of new tools, because there have been many tools developed during the last 10, 20 years.  Let’s say optogenetics, for example, but also many new types of electrophysiological recordings and the German Research Council wanted to have a program where all of this research is bundled and we have a collaborative consortium where tools that have been developed in the past are used and the structure of this priority program is like a Troika.  So each project should be defined to have one tool maker, one experimenter and a data analyst.  So it’s a truly collaborative effort and leads to many nice results. I have coordinated this program since 2013 and it’s a great pleasure to work with all of those people.  

Ileana Hanganu-Opatz was speaking to Ruairi J Mackenzie, Science Writer for Technology Networks. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.