There is no doubt in the mind of Prof. Helmuth Steinmetz: "It was five years ago that the neuroscience communities in Frankfurt and Mainz ventured out on a course that others are now only starting to follow." The latest concept for the closer cooperation of the universities in Frankfurt, Mainz, Darmstadt and a number of other institutions of the region was, in part, inspired by the Rhine-Main Neuroscience Network. "The successes we have achieved through our cooperation have caught the attention of other disciplines," continues the Director of the Department of Neurology of the Hospital of Frankfurt's Goethe University.
Steinmetz is currently the coordinator of the Rhine-Main Neuroscience Network. He finds it easy enough to outline the benefits of the network. "It's not just the quality of what we do that makes us special, but the quantity and the wide range of our work. Mainz and Frankfurt complement each other perfectly as there is sufficient thematic differentiation. The people in Mainz primarily conduct research at the molecular and cellular levels. Here in Frankfurt, one of our primary interests is systemic neuroscience, in other words, the higher cognitive functions."
Steinmetz sees the founding of the rmn² network as a result of the continuously growing vitality of Mainz and Frankfurt over recent years. "An entirely original diversity of institutions concerned with the neurosciences has developed here. However, we realized that each on its own would not be able to compete with Berlin or Munich." Only a suitable network would enable the Rhine-Main region to keep pace with the other centers of brain research.
"Our network primarily thrives on our individual projects," emphasizes Steinmetz. The colleagues from the various research fields meet regularly for an in-depth exchange of information. "It is, for example, quite common for patients from Mainz to be examined using our MRI and MEG scanners here in Frankfurt."
Which brings the professor to the landmark project of Frankfurt neurosciences: the Brain Imaging Center (BIC). Its equipment for high-frequency magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) make the Brain Imaging Center one of the leading neuroscience hubs in Germany. "This is a large research facility that is financed by the federal government, the state, the German Research Foundation and the Max Planck Society." Those in Mainz as well as other institutions outside the rmn² frequently use the Brain Imaging Center and its variety of technologies to, quite literally, get the picture.
However, the arteries of the neuroscience network not only connect landmarks but run at many different levels. "Once every 3 months, our executive committee meets to discuss current topics." Representatives of both sites sit on the appointment committees of the partner universities and hospitals in order to decide who will fit into the network and what gaps need to be closed. "Furthermore, our students have unrestricted access to the teaching and doctorate resources of both universities."
Such a network that extends beyond the borders of the states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate is a relatively new thing. "A mere 20 years ago, no one would have conceived that this would be possible. The idea of providing support to your neighbor was simply not on the agenda. But here too, the neuroscience community is breaking new ground."
Prof. Robert Nitsch, on behalf of Mainz, now picks up the ball and runs with it: “It is particularly important nowadays to systematically develop core research fields. Of course, the outcome needs to be much more than just a great website. A long term concept is required and things must have a lasting effect. What we must do is recruit the right people, but in order to get them to come, you have to offer attractive structures and particularly promising prospects. And it must also be made possible to continue research over a period of decades. As far as that is concerned, we've succeeded."
The Director of the Institute of Microscopic Anatomy and Neurobiology at Mainz University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) knows what he is talking about. He has already managed to establish a research center for neurosciences at the Berlin Charité teaching hospital and successfully obtained support through the Excellence Initiative for his 'NeuroCure' cluster there. He also prepared the groundwork for the formation of the Rhine-Main Neuroscience Network (rmn²) in Mainz and Frankfurt. Since then, the physician and neurobiologist with an additional doctorate in philosophy has been working tirelessly for its further expansion. “It’s rather like taking part in a marathon,” he adds.
"Among the subjects we deal with in our network are mental health issues. We are concerned with the questions of how we can stay healthy in our complex world and how the brain can overcome the challenges of the modern world of work. How do we manage to withstand all the permanent stress? Some can do this better than others. But why is this?" asks Nitsch, with one eye on actual research projects that are currently in progress.
These are questions that really need to be urgently answered. "We founded the German Resilience Center (DRZ) to do research in this field. Outstanding people came to Mainz to establish the DRZ." Among these, Nitsch names his colleague, Prof. Rafael Kalisch. "He came from Hamburg, where he worked at a first-class center. At that time, he came with the aspiration of being able to build something new with us. He took a very real risk and accepted the fact that he might well have to make do with makeshift solutions." It then proved possible to obtain funding for the construction of the Neuroimaging Center, of which Kalisch will be head. It is hoped that it will be ready for use on the campus of Mainz University Medical Center by 2018.
"In recent years, more than a dozen new professors have been appointed in the entire field of the neurosciences," explains Nitsch. For him it is clear that it is these eminent researchers who form the backbone of the rmn². “However, we shouldn’t just rely on professors. Doctoral candidates often have brilliant ideas." They also have their say. "We meet, for example, every two years in a youth hostel. Around 350 people come together there - and these are mainly young scientists - to present and discuss their research."
In February 2015, the network introduced itself to the general public through its first 'rmn² lecture'. This relatively late point of time was chosen deliberately as by then the network had scored a number of major successes. The celebrated neurophysiologist Prof. Wolf Singer gave a talk on the subject of ‘The brain, a self-organizing dynamic system - the challenges of a paradigm shift'. Interest was considerable and around 900 guests came to Frankfurt.
"We have something to say to the public and want to show the residents of the Rhine-Main region what do we as researchers," adds Nitsch. It is with some satisfaction that he is able to evaluate the development of the rmn² to date and its future prospects: “Mainz and Frankfurt are now genuinely linked together in the field of the neurosciences – and the world knows that we are a single entity.”