Thomas Heimburg receives 10 million kroner to research nerves – Niels Bohr Institute - University of Copenhagen

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24 October 2011

Thomas Heimburg receives 10 million kroner to research nerves

Thomas Heimburg, head of the biophysics group, Membranes, has received 10 million kroner from the VILLUM FOUNDATION for research into a fundamentally new physical understanding of nerve functions. Using the laws of physics, the researchers will try to find answers as to how the signals in nerves are transported and influenced.

Thomas Heimburg, head of the biophysics group, Membranes, has received 10 million kroner for research into a fundamentally new physical understanding of nerve functions

In a famous scientific article from 1952 by Alan L. Hodgkin and Andrew F. Huxley nerves are described as functioning by sending electrical impulses along neural pathways. The impulses are sent from one end of the nerve to the other using electrically charged salts that pass through ion channels in the membrane. This model received the Nobel Prize in 1963 and has been on of the central pillars of molecular biology.

Challenges the old theories

In 2005, however, the physicists Thomas Heimburg and Andrew Jackson from Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen came up with an alternative theory that overthrows the old established theories of electrical impulses. In their new theory chemical processes in the ion channels do not play a central role. Instead, they explained the impulses in the neural pathways as a mechanical pulse in the form of sound pulses – a local pulse unit, a soliton, which moves concentrated without diffusing, without changing form and without losing power.

“Electrical impulses would produce heat – that is how the physical laws of thermodynamics work and we cannot observer any heat from the neural pathways”, says associate professor Thomas Heimburg and explains that the theory of sound pulses, on the other hand, has proven to be consistent with many physical measurements of nerves, which had hitherto been inexplicable. For example, it explains the changes in the thickness, length and temperature of the nerves and even more interesting, this theory can explain how anaesthetics work, which has otherwise been a complete mystery for 150 years.

Opens new door into biological processes

The new scientific physics theory therefore has the potential to provide a new overview over many biological processes and the grant of 10 million kroner will now make it possible to research the physical consequences of the new neural model.

“It will open a new door into the understanding of biological processes”, says Thomas Heimburg, who has been the head of the biophysics group, Membranes since 2003. The experimental group is working partly with biological membranes and their thermodynamics and partly with atomic force microscopy and fluorescence microscopy. The grant from the VILLUM FOUNDATION will provide new research positions for postdoc and PhD students who will study nerves from crabs and mice. They are already starting to test the predictions that the new theories make about anaesthesia at the Copenhagen University Hospital.