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Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for Young Researchers Awarded to MDC Researcher Dr. James Poulet

March 14, 2013 – For his outstanding achievements in biomedical research, the British neuroscientist Dr. James Poulet of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch has received the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for Young Researchers. The prize, endowed with 60,000 euros, was awarded to the researcher in St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Dr. Poulet works in the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence at the Charité in Berlin. According to the prize announcement issued by the Paul Ehrlich Foundation, Dr. Poulet’s research furthers our understanding of the neuronal basis of behavior. His work is of fundamental importance for the development of artificial joints and prostheses.

Dr. Poulet explores what happens in the brain when it perceives touch sensations and how these touch signals are converted into behavior. “For example, we feel for the front door key in our pocket, grab it and unlock the door,” Dr. Poulet explained. In particular his work focuses on the neurons in the neocortex – the outer folded structure in the brain that is the seat of sensory perception and voluntary motor control.

The brain is active at all times of the day and night. These changes in activity are referred to as particular “brain state”. With the invention of the electroencephalograph (EEG) in 1929, the neurologist Hans Berger showed for the first time that different brain states exist in the awake human brain. Since then, EEG recordings have confirmed this phenomenon in species ranging from mice to humans.

Researchers assume that changes in brain state are important for normal brain function and signal processing. “But so far, little is known about the neural mechanisms that generate these changes in brain state and the impact they have on sensory processing and behavior," said Dr. Poulet.

In its prize announcement, the Scientific Council of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation noted that Dr. Poulet combines new electrophysiological and optical techniques with behavioral research methods to investigate these questions. The neuroscientist is currently studying what occurs in the cerebral cortex when a mouse feels an object with its forepaw and responds by pressing a button. “This is the way the mouse tells us that it feels something,” he explained. The activity of specific brain regions during this task is of interest in the development of artificial joints and prostheses, but also for the treatment of paralysis. Dr. Poulet hopes that his research will also open up new avenues for the treatment of neurological diseases.

Since the first EEG recordings by Hans Berger, it was thought that cortical neurons show more similarity in their activity during periods of rest than during movement or alertness. As postdoc at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne Dr. Poulet was able to prove this by comparing the activity of individual neurons in resting and moving mice.

Why we don’t deafen ourselves when we shout

Dr. Poulet attracted particular attention not only from the scientific community but also from the media for his PhD thesis on the chirping of crickets. Male crickets rub their forewings together to make a mating call to attract females. This noise can reach a level of 100 decibels, which is as loud as a jackhammer or music in a discotheque. But the male crickets are not deafened by their own sound. Dr. Poulet discovered the reason for this: The neurons that control the mating call of the male cricket at the same time also suppress the response of neurons in the hearing pathway during singing. A similar effect also occurs in humans in the hearing system when we sing or shout. Researchers refer to this internal feedback phenomenon as “corollary discharge”. The term describes a signal in the brain that filters out the perception of stimuli (such as sounds or touches) that are self-generated.

Dr. Poulet was born on October 27, 1975 in London, United Kingdom. He studied biology at the University of Bristol, received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 2002 and was a postdoc there from 2003 to 2005. He then became a postdoc at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Since 2009 Dr. Poulet has been a group leader at the MDC and has been working at the Charité Berlin in the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence, a research network of university and non-university research institutions*. In 2009 he decided to accept the position in Berlin due to the attractive working conditions. “Here I was able to set up a laboratory with cutting edge equipment and had excellent applicants to join my lab. The working environment is great – the atmosphere among colleagues is scientifically stimulating, supportive and fun. And Berlin is simply a very attractive city offering good quality of life for me and my family.”

Dr. Poulet has already received numerous awards for his research, including the Young Investigator Award of the International Society for Neuroethology in 2004, the Rolleston Memorial Prize of the University of Oxford in Biology in 2002 and in the same year the Gedge Prize, the Physiology Prize of the University of Cambridge. In 2010 he received a Starting Grant of the European Research Council (ERC), which is endowed with 1.5 million euros. In 2005 he received a Long-Term Fellowship of the Human Frontier Science Program.

*Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, German Rheuma Research Center, Berlin (DRFZ), Leibniz-Institut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) and the MDC.


Dr. James Poulet (Photo: David Ausserhofer/ Copyright: MDC)

Barbara Bachtler
Press Department
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch
in the Helmholtz Association
Robert-Rössle-Straße 10; 13125 Berlin, Germany
Phone: +49 (0) 30 94 06 - 38 96; Fax:  +49 (0) 30 94 06 - 38 33

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