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Philipp Berens

Bernstein Award for Computational Neuroscience 2015

Looking into the retina

In our retina, there are numerous types of a certain cell class, the so-called bipolar cells. To date, 14 different types have been identified in the mouse. How does this diversity emerge—do the cells have different roles in visual processing? These are the questions Philipp Berens deals with. “By means of computer models, I try to understand the functional and biophysical properties of these cells,” Berens explains. “The models build on physiological and anatomical data from experimental research.” Computational modelling allows him to observe the cell types in different settings and to draw conclusions from their behavior.

In previous collaborations with experimental researchers, Berens has studied another cell type in the retina: the ganglion cells. These neurons receive their inputs from bipolar cells and send the output of the retina as nerve impulses to the brain. Using statistical methods, Berens has identified many different types of ganglion cells. “Until recently, the existence of only a handful of ganglion cell types had been assumed—however, we found 30 to 40 distinct types. They all fulfill a different function and project their own image version to the brain,” Berens says.

Analyzing bipolar cells will enable the neuroscientist to understand how the wide variety of ganglion cells is created. At the same time, Berens pursues medical applications with his research. In a second step, he plans to investigate the impact of degenerative retinal diseases on various cell types. “Do all bipolar cell types fail simultaneously or do some survive longer than others? And may the results from these findings serve as a diagnostic marker, which allows us to analyze the progress of the disease in a patient?” Berens asks.

By means of the Bernstein Award, Berens plans to establish a research group at the University of Tübingen. Here, Berens is already heading a project at the Bernstein Center and the Werner Reichardt Center for Integrative Neuroscience – CIN (Cluster of Excellence at the university) and has several collaborations. He is looking forward to the forthcoming research projects: “The challenge in trying to understand the nervous system is to find a part that is sufficiently complex to facilitate exciting things to happen—and that is at the same time simple enough to allow its understanding. The retina is an ideal example of this.”


Dr. Philipp Berens
Bernstein Zentrum für Computational Neuroscience Tübingen
Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen
Otfried-Müller-Str. 25
72076 Tübingen
Tel: +49 (0)7071 29 88910