On Depression and Schizophrenia

The Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation awards the 2009 Zülch Prize endowed with 50,000 euros to psychiatrists Florian Holsboer and Daniel R. Weinberger

September 09, 2009

It has been 20 years since its inception: the Zülch Prize. Winners are rewarded for special achievements in basic neurological research. This year's prize honours two scientists studying the causes of psychiatric disorders at the molecular level: Florian Holsboer, Director of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, and Daniel R. Weinberger from the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland/USA, will be presented with their awards in Cologne on September 11th.

Florian Holsboer, born in Munich in 1945, earned his postdoctoral teaching qualification in 1984 in the Faculty of Psychiatry and Neuroendocrinology at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. It was not long before the Max Planck Society appointed him Director at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich in 1989. The Institute, which concentrates primarily on conducting research into depression and anxiety disorders, is one of the world's leading institutions in the field. This success is based on Holsboer's principle of drawing questions for basic research from the clinic. The findings from the basic research lab then flow back into clinical research.

One of the things Florian Holsboer discovered is that, in patients with depression, the neuropeptide CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) is not only involved in raising the concentration of stress hormones, it also makes a significant contribution to inducing the psychic symptoms typical of depression. In his labs, Florian Holsboer employed methods from the fields of biochemistry and molecular genetics to examine the systems regulating stress hormones. He found that depressive patients have a receptor that is not working properly, and that this receptor is responsible for adequately re-regulating the stress hormone system in the brain. Furthermore, Florian Holsboer's work identified the special relevance of a CHR receptor, which, when activated, is instrumental in producing the symptoms typical of depression. Holsboer's idea was to block this receptor with targeted measures, which led to the development of a new therapy for patients suffering from depression.

Furthermore, it is important to find out which of the range of suitable drugs has the best therapeutic effect on each patient. A discovery by the Institute laboratories helped here: the transfer of drugs with an antidepressant effect from the blood to the brain is influenced by gene variants that control the functioning of the blood-brain barrier. Genetic tests helped the scientists working with Florian Holsboer to predict which patient would have the best response to which drug. This marked a first step towards "personalised medicine".

Daniel R. Weinberger, born in New York in 1947, studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He obtained his medical degree (MD) in 1973 from the University of Pennsylvania and subsequently went through ten years of training to qualify in Internal Medicine, Neurology and Psychiatry at the Schools of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), Harvard University and George Washington University. 1977 saw him take up his first role in the research programmes of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). He has been head of the Clinical Brain Disorders Branch since 1998 and Director of the internationally renowned Gene, Cognition and Psychosis Programme since 2003. The latter programme focuses primarily on research into schizophrenia.

Weinberger was already investigating anatomical brain abnormalities in schizophrenia patients when imaging techniques for anatomical studies on the living brain - in both healthy and brain-damaged patients - were still in their infancy. Weinberger worked intensely with these methods from an early stage in his scientific career and made a major contribution to their development.

In this way, he discovered anomalies in the hippocampus of schizophrenia patients, which are indicative of maturation disorders. This structure in the human brain is one of the most ancient in evolution and is the central switch point of the limbic system, which controls emotions, among other things. Weinberger hypothesises that this neurobiological developmental disorder forms the pathophysiological basis for schizophrenic psychoses.

Weinberger and his team have also identified many genes that have an influence on the risk of schizophrenia, including, ostensibly for the first time, a gene that controls an important biological factor, according to a recent interview with Weinberger. This gene may be partly responsible for determining a person's susceptibility to schizophrenia. Schizophrenia therefore appears to be more than a genetically-determined disorder.

The Zülch Prize ceremony takes place at 10 a.m. on Friday, September 11, 2009 in the Isabellensaal of the Gürzenich Hall in Cologne. The laudatory speech for Florian Holsboer will be delivered by Isabella Heuser, Professor of Psychiatry at Charité Berlin. Peter Falkei, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Göttingen, will hold the laudation for Daniel R. Weinberger. Florian Holsboer will speak on "Personalised therapy for depression - A challenge for basic research", while the title of Daniel R. Weinberger's speech is "Schizophrenia: from genes to brain".

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