A neuronal network of two nerve cells in the petri dish

The networker

The neuroscientist Dr. James Poulet has been appointed to the W3 professorship for Systems Neuroscience at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in cooperation with the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). Professor Poulet took up the post on April 1, 2020.

When someone runs their hand over an icy surface, they simultaneously feel how cool and smooth it is. “We take it completely for granted that many sensory stimuli are perceived as one sensation, but we don’t know how they are combined,” James Poulet explains. The British neuroscientist has since 2009 led the Neural Circuits and Behavior Lab at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine and has been working at the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence. He and his team investigate how the brain integrates touch and temperature. The 44-year-old Poulet has now been appointed to the W3 professorship for Systems Neuroscience at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in cooperation with the MDC.

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

“James Poulet is one of Europe’s leading researchers in the field of systems neuroscience. We warmly congratulate him on his appointment,” says Professor Thomas Sommer, interim Scientific Director of the MDC. Systems neuroscientists study how the activities of individual neurons are processed in neural circuits and how this in turn leads to very specific and measurable behavior. “To conduct his research, Poulet has combined a series of very sophisticated and innovative techniques that include optical methods,” Sommer says. “He also collaborates very successfully with researchers in Germany and abroad; in Berlin this includes the MDC labs of Professors Gary Lewin, Carmen Birchmeier and Helmut Kettenmann as well as the NeuroCure groups of Professors Benjamin Judkewitz and Dietmar Schmitz.”

It started with a video conference – thanks to the coronavirus

“I am naturally extremely pleased and honoured to receive the professorship,” Poulet says. Even if things didn’t start out quite like he had expected due to the corona crisis. “I met with the dean of Charité, Professor Axel Radlach Pries, on March 30 to sign the final contract,” Poulet recounts. “We didn’t shake hands and we kept a two-meter distance between ourselves during our brief talk.” His first day as professor began with a lab group meeting held via video conference, and afterwards he helped his three kids with their schoolwork. “My days have since followed a similar routine of video conferencing, writing and helping with schoolwork,” he says.

Poulet studied biology at the University of Bristol and received his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He then held postdoc positions in Cambridge and at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne. Poulet joined the MDC as a junior research group leader in 2009. He and his team have since conducted their research as part of the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence at Charité. Poulet has already received two awards from the European Research Council (ERC) for his fundamental research. In 2010 he received a €1.5 million ERC Starting Grant for early-career researchers. And in 2017 he was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant of €2 million to support his groundbreaking research.

A surprising finding on warm perception

“Our long-term goal is to identify neural mechanisms of sensory processing and perception. We have a special interest in the function of the thalamus and neocortex, two areas that are thought to be at the center of sensory perception” Poulet says. His studies are conducted on mice, whose forepaws function much like human hands. They are used not only for locomotion, but also to reach and sense objects. The skin of the forepaws contains nerve endings, very similar to those found in in humans, that convey sensory stimuli like touch, temperature and pain to the brain. Poulet and his team closely observe individual neurons embedded in their intact networks as mice perform sensory tasks. In addition, they often use genetically altered types of neurons to help understand how the brain generates a sensory percept.

In his most recent paper, published in late March, Poulet collaborated with Gary Lewin (MDC) to show that warm perception in mice functions differently than previously believed. As he and his team reported in the journal Neuron, perceiving warmth requires input from a surprising source: cool receptors. The researchers’ finding challenged the widely held theory that dedicated and separate neurons relay either warm or cool sensations to the brain.


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