“There is no such thing as a normal brain,” says Dr. Hanna Hörnberg. Ever since her biology studies, she has been fascinated by the human brain, and how molecular processes can change gray matter. The 36-year-old Swede is the new junior group leader at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). Since November 1, she has headed the Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms of Behavior Lab at the Berlin-Buch Campus.
Interview with Hanna Hörnberg
In search of targeted therapies
Autism, schizophrenia, depression – these neuropsychiatric conditions all have in common that their forms and severity are as varied as the risk factors that underlie them. Effective therapies are difficult to find. Physicians often have no choice but to prescribe drugs to affected patients on a trial-and-error basis. People with depression or schizophrenia often have to try an entire range of medicines until an effective drug is found that can help them.
“This is because there are hardly any clinical biomarkers for these conditions,” explains Hörnberg. For cancer therapy, for example, biomarkers – these can be genetic material, gene products or molecules such as enzymes, receptors, or hormones – provide valuable information on whether a particular targetedtherapy is useful or not. Hörnberg wants to identify such biomarkers for neuropsychiatric and developmental conditions.
As a postdoctoral researcher at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, the biologist has investigated what are known as dopaminergic neurons – neurons in which the neurotransmitter dopamine is produced – in the brains of mouse models for autism. She discovered that dopaminergic neurons in the brain’s reward center in these mice do not respond to the bonding hormone oxytocin. This reduces social interaction in these mice. At the MDC, she plans to investigate not only the neuronal circuits for social symptoms, but also those that control emotions such as anxiety. “The signaling cascades that regulates these behaviors could be targets for new drugs,” she says in explaining her approach.
Relieving disabilitating symptoms – instead of changing the personality
In the process, it is important to her that those affected can decide for themselves whether and to what extent they would like to get help. Autistic people may experience symptoms such as anxiety, hypersensitivity, or sleep problems, which can cause suffering to individuals and may be a reason to seek treatment. However, this does not mean that they want to perceive the world differently as a result of therapy. “This is part of who they are and does not need treatment,” says the neuroscientist. She says it is very important to find out which changes in the brain trigger which symptoms – so that treatments can be targeted specifically towards symptoms that cause suffering to individuals.
The fact that she now heads a research group at the MDC is “a great privilege” for her. The palpable team spirit at the MDC inspires her. She is looking forward to the exchange with her colleagues and to joint research results. In addition, she will collaborate with other scientists within NeuroCure, a Berlin-based Cluster of Excellence for research into neurological and psychiatric conditions. Last but not least, it is extremely important to her that the MDC promotes the idea of diversity. “In science, women and especially minorities still do not play the same role in all areas. But diversity in science is a strength, and from my experience MDC supports this.”
Text: Jana Ehrhardt-Joswig