His findings on the function of ion channels in individual cells won him the ultimate prize in physiology and medicine in 1991 along with Erwin Neher. Bert Sakmann (1942) was also one of the brains behind the technique known as the patch clamp, which is still in use today to study cell function in numerous diseases, particularly neurodegenerative ones. The German neurophysicist was one of the guests at the event held every year in Lindau which gathers prestigious Nobel laureates together to share their experiences with young researchers around the world. The Dr. Antonio Esteve Foundation and Indagando TV took advantage of the occasion to interview one of the most respected experts in brain anatomy research.
There are 85 years between the time Santiago Ramón y Cajal won his Nobel prize in 1906 and Sakmann’s award, and yet ?his findings and his beautiful drawings of the different types of neurons and their connections are still the starting point of it all," says the German scientist. According to Sakmann, the Nobel prize did not have an impact on his life but it did change the way he worked: ?It gave me the chance to do my research completely independently without any outside distractions. Scientific practice became much easier,? he contends.
As the director of one of the research groups at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, Sakmann’s whole career has been based on the processes that take place in the brain. ?Today we know, for example, where in the brain the learning process takes place," he explains in the interview. "However, the lack of animal models that can replicate the human brain prevents us from learning about many other processes, such as the emotions or the source of many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s."
Another of the big challenges in studying the brain, notes Sakmann, is to a achieve a technique that is able to observe the function of the brain in its entirety. ?At the moment we can view the brain ‘live’ in two resolutions. On the one hand, by magnetic resonance, which has a very indirect relationship with electrical activity. And on the other, we can observe a detailed display in very high resolution of this electrical activity but this is restricted to very shallow structures about one millimetre deep. Consequently, these methods are restricted to the superficial areas of the brain,? explains the Nobel laureate.
How are memories stored? How does a simple behavioural gesture start? These are cerebral processes that are still up in the air. This is why Sakmann would like to retire having witnessed a major landmark in brain research. ?I would just love to have a complete diagram of all the wiring in the brain, even if it was just a mouse’s brain, so we could start examining what happens in the brain’s structure when you learn something or recognise an object. That would be my dream,? concludes the scientist.<