Homing in on the brain.
A Double-Edged Axe in the Axon Forest
There’s rich variety of form and function among the hundred billion neurons that make up the human nervous system, yet almost every neuron has an axon. This extension from the cell body, typically resembling a trunk with many branches, carries electrical and chemical signals outward to other cells. During early development, the brain’s axon “forest” is shaped by a pruning process that selectively cuts branches and clears the way for optimal neural networking. The same process shows a destructive aspect in old age, however, playing a role in neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer. Professor Thomas Misgeld is investigating the dual nature of axon loss.
A family thing
Born in 1971, Thomas Misgeld didn’t fall far from the tree. He grew up surrounded by medical and academic professionals, with doctors on both sides of the family, roots and branches providing natural connections to various aspects of science. His mother and father, both now retired, were a doctor and a neurophysiology researcher, respectively. “In the beginning I very deliberately set out not to work in neuroscience,” Misgeld says, despite that being exactly where he ended up. An early foray into immunology quickly led to a focus on neuroimmunology, and from there to the realization that his true passion was investigating the structural biology of the brain: “What cells look like, and what cells do to each other – and then there’s nothing better than neuroscience because there’s no part of the body that’s as complex and fascinating.”
From TUM to Harvard, and back
Following medical training in Munich, at TUM and the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology, Thomas Misgeld did postdoctoral research in the United States. At Washington University in St. Louis and at Harvard, he acquired expertise in cutting-edge microscopy techniques for in vivo imaging that continue to shed new light on the life of individual nerve cells. Returning to TUM in 2006 as a Kovalevskaja group leader within the Institute of Neuroscience, he became a fellow of the TUM Institute for Advanced Study and one of the university’s first tenure track professors, as well as a principal investigator in the Excellence Cluster CIPS-M (Center for Integrated Protein Science Munich). Now a full professor, he is director of the TUM Institute of Cell Biology and an associate member of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE). In 2012, Misgeld and a number of collaborators at TUM, DZNE and LMU established the Munich Cluster for Systems Neurology (SyNergy), an Excellence Cluster dedicated to investigating the mechanistic basis of neurological diseases. Misgeld and Professor Christian Haass, a renowned Alzheimer’s researcher at DZNE and LMU, are co-coordinators of SyNergy.
While in America, Misgeld made a new family connection that would prove vital for his research as well. It was in St. Louis that he met his wife, Dr. Leanne Godinho. An accomplished scientist in her own right, Godinho is the anchor for much of the lab’s work on developmental neurobiology, and particularly for research employing the zebrafish model.
“Developing a dual career path in Germany is hard, as it is everywhere, but the environment here really allows us to do the kind of research we want, and to build up capabilities that will become increasingly important in the future.”
Adapted from article by Patrick Regan, full version on Faszination Forschung N.17 / 2015