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29 April 2021

IoPPN researcher wins £1.8m ERC grant to study engineered neurogenesis for brain repair

King’s academic, Professor Benedikt Berninger, has been awarded a prestigious Advanced Grant by the European Research Council (ERC).

Graphic of the side of a head with the brain's pathways in different colours

The grant, worth over £1.8m, will enable Professor Berninger to conduct a five year study into engineered neurogenesis for brain repair.

The IMAGINE study is researching the possibility of changing the identities of cells in the brain, with the hope that they will be able to generate new neurons.

Berninger’s work has shown that “glia”, a kind of support cell in the brain, have the potential to be converted by introducing proteins that regulate gene expression. He now hopes to use this grant to make the process of cell conversion directly visible in mouse brains, and in doing so learning both how glial cells transform into new neurons, and how those neurons connect to pre-existing ones.

I feel immensely happy to have received this funding from the ERC. It allows us to take a significant step forward in addressing as yet unanswered questions about the brain’s capacity for repair from within. The idea that we will be able to actually see conversion of glia into new neurons happening in front of our eyes is absolutely thrilling.

Professor Benedikt Berninger, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London

He added, “An important next step will be to study whether and how these new neurons are then co-activated together with the pre-existing network of neurons when the brain processes stimuli.”

Professor Berninger’s ultimate aim is to be able to regenerate lost or non-functional neurons in patients with neurological diseases like epilepsy and autism.

The ERC is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe.

ERC Advanced Grants are awarded to outstanding investigators with an internationally recognised track record of research achievements. The IoPPN’s Centre for Developmental Neurobiology is proud to host four ERC awardees, including three Advanced Grants.

The 2020 ERC Advanced Grants will see €507 million, (£438m) going to 209 leading researchers across Europe. Apart from strengthening Europe’s knowledge base, the new research projects will also lead to the creation of some 1900 new jobs for post-doctoral fellows, PhD students and other research staff. The UK has 51 grantees in this year’s funding round, the most of any ERC participating country.

For this last ERC call under Horizon 2020, over 200 researchers will be funded to follow their scientific instinct and dreams. Still, the great increase in demand led to a very fierce competition: only 8% of candidates were successful.

ERC President Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

He continued, “Many outstanding researchers with innovative ideas passed the excellence threshold but were left unfunded due to budget constraints - another motivation for the national or regional levels to support these great projects.”

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Benedikt Berninger

Professor of Developmental Neurobiology