A prize to explore brain extracellular space

Valentin Nägerl, a University of Bordeaux professor working at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Neuroscience (IINS), has been named a prize-winner in the Human Frontiers Science Program 2020. At the head of an international team involving 4 countries, he is to receive funding of €1.3 million to conduct a research project on brain extracellular space.

  • 22/04/2020

Valentin Nägerl © Sharpen Valentin Nägerl © Sharpen

What is your research theme?

With my research team at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Neuroscience (CNRS and University of Bordeaux – Bordeaux Neurocampus), we develop and apply advanced optical microscopy techniques to visualize brain cells and their synapses in their natural habitat in the living brain. We are trying to understand the role of their properties and behavior in the higher-order brain functions, such as learning and memory, and what happens to them in brain diseases. As the synapses are very small and hidden away in very fragile brain tissue, we need the very best tools in order to visualize them sufficiently.

Driven by this challenge, we have invented a new microscopy technique that allows us to visualize the narrow spaces that surround all the cells in the brain and the synapses within living brain tissue. These complex spaces are referred to collectively as brain extracellular space. Our object is to study this fascinating “dark matter” of the brain and reveal its role in its functioning.

What is the Human Frontiers Science Program?

The Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) is an international research support program which aims to foster intercontinental collaboration and training in cutting-edge interdisciplinary research focusing on life sciences. The 28 teams that have won research grants in the 2020 competition were put through a strict selection process that lasted a whole year. This worldwide competition began by the submission of some 700 letters of intent involving laboratories in over 50 different countries, which means that about 4% of applicants actually received grants. Each of the teams that won such a grant will receive about €1.3 million to finance its research projects over a three-year period.

What will the prize mean to you?

I feel very lucky to be receiving this grant to conduct this project, especially in these times when there is a decline in recognition and funding for basic research. It encourages us to explore the extracellular space of the brain, which makes up 20% of brain volume but has been largely untouched because it is incredibly miniaturized and intertwined with the astronomically-complex cell architecture of the brain. It should be noted that this grant will establish links with renowned research teams abroad (in Japan, the US and Denmark), thereby enabling us to take up the many scientific challenges with much greater and more varied firepower. It is also reassuring in that it shows that it is possible to carry out cutting-edge research here at the University of Bordeaux and I am particularly grateful for that.