Physiology 2016

Joint Meeting of the American Physiological Society and
The Physiological Society

29 - 31 July 2016
Convention Centre Dublin, Ireland

Bert Sakmann

Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology,

Dr. Bert Sakmann studied at the Universities of Tübingen, Freiburg, Berlin, Paris and Munich, graduating in 1967. Much of his professional life has been spent in various institutes of the Max Planck Society. In 1971, a British Council Fellowship took him to the Department of Biophysics of University College (London) to work with Bernard Katz, the 1970 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discoveries concerning the humoral transmitters in the nerve terminals and the mechanism for their storage, release and inactivation. In 1992, in honor of Professor Katz, Dr. Sakmann together with the Humboldt Foundation (Bonn) established the annual Bernard Katz prize lecture from part of his Nobel Prize. This lecture is given alternately in Heidelberg and Jerusalem.
In 1974, Dr. Sakmann obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen and with Erwin Neher, at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, began the work which was to revolutionize cellular biology and neuroscience and win then the 1991 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine “for discoveries concerning the function of single ion channels in cells” for which they invented the patch clamp technique. It involves attaching the tip of a tiny glass pipette directly to a cell’s surface membrane, making very precise measurements of electrical flow possible. This allows researchers to measure the electrical current going in and out of individual ion channels of a cells membrane and permitted the first observation, in real time, of single biomolecules switching between different states.
Combining single channel current measurements and molecular biological techniques he identified, in collaboration with Shosaku Numa, the molecular determinants of ion flow through the AChR channel and this channels different subunit compositions.
His subsequent research was conducted, from 1988 onwards, at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg. He used the patch clamp technique to study CNS cells and circuits in order to identify the sophisticated interplay of ion channels which regulate the flow of sodium, potassium and calcium ions in response to chemical signals acting on the pre- and postsynaptic membrane during nerve stimulation.
Dr. Sakmann and his collaborators introducing dual patch pipette recording, discovered time sensitive mechanisms that lead to experience dependent changes in the synaptic connections between nerve cells in the brains cortex. These changes in connectivity rely on the newly discovered active electrical properties of dendrites (back-propagating action potentials), the nerve cells signal receiving compartment. Action potentials in dendrites increase the calcium inflow through active glutamatergic synapses, triggering rearrangements and modification of postsynaptic receptors and synaptic efficacy (STDP).
The active electrical properties of dendrites also form the basis of mechanisms that enable the major excitatory neurons of the cortex to behave as “coincidence detectors” for the presence of simultaneous feed-forward and feedback information. This discovery provides one of the few recent experimental advances in the field of neuroscience that can claim to provide a cellular basis for understanding a brain function as a whole.
In parallel to this work on postsynaptic mechanisms, in a giant CNS synapse of the brainstem (calyx of Held) Dr. Sakmann and his group identified, introducing dual patch pipette recordings, mechanisms that couple calcium inflow into the axon terminals to the release of glutamate onto the postsynaptic membrane. He and his collaborators developed a detailed model of buffered diffusion of calcium in the presynaptic terminal between active calcium channels and the vesicle calcium sensor.
In 2008 Dr. Sakmann returned to Munich where he heads the Research Group “Cortical Columns in Silico” at the Max-Planck-Institut of Neurobiologie in Martinsried. Here he and his group discovered the cell-type specific sensory activation patterns in different layers of a column in the vibrissal area of the rodent somatosensory cortex and their anatomical correlates.
As of June 2009 to June 2012, Dr. Sakmann has been involved in establishing a new research Institute in the US for the Max Planck Society in his function as inaugural scientific director of the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience located in Jupiter/Palm Beach County. Here he also heads the Research Group “Digital Neuroanatomy”. This group established the detailed cellular anatomy of local circuits in a single and then multiple cortical columns using 3D reconstructions of dendrites and axons of physiologically characterized neurons and reverse engineering them into cortical columns in silico.
Since 2012 to present he is a group leader at the MPFI for neuroscience in Jupiter. The group investigates quantitatively the projections of cortex to thalamus and cerebellum. The group also has established a 3D database of registered reconstructions of cortex and thalamus.

Preceded by announcement of the Experimental Physiology Early Career Author's prize

For publication in Experimental Physiology

The Physiological Society Paton Prize Lecture
16.15 - 17.00
Neuronal networks in brain slices and whole brains
Plenary lecture