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How to use math to map brain cells

Professor Dr. Susanne Schreiber is a computational neurophysiologist at the Institute for Theoretical Biology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin. She uses math to map brain cells, trying to understand things like how neurons continue firing smoothly when the brain’s temperature fluctuates.

Susanne Schreiber
Prof. Dr. Susanne Schreiber
Foto: Matthias Heyde

Your pitch in a tweet:

Brain temperature is surprisingly variable. We try to understand which aspects of neural design nevertheless guarantee a robust function.

… Now to your mum:

The temperature of your brain is not as constant as you may think. Changes of a few degrees may seem small, but they can have drastic consequences. In some people, even a hot bath can trigger epileptic seizures. We try to understand how temperature affects the individual cells in the brain and how they talk among each other. We hope to understand why things sometimes can go wrong and why, most of the time, they don’t.

… And to a first-year science undergraduate:

We know that brain temperature changes in pathological circumstances like fever. It is often less appreciated that temperature is also modulated in physiological conditions, for example, when we exercise. The effect is relatively small, yet sufficient to affect the computations performed by networks of neurons. Evolution must hence have developed a neural design which ensures robustness and protects the functioning of our brains. We are exploring fundamental mechanisms that contribute to robustness and identify critical points, where temperature outbalances the system and can trigger pathologies, such as epileptic seizures. To better explore this topic, we use mathematical models of neuronal networks, helping us to uncover generic principles.

Just as computers are affected by temperature, so too are our body’s processing centers: our brains. Susanne Schreiber leads a research group that explores how neurons, the cells the make up the brain, are optimized for computation, particularly when the brain’s temperature dips and spikes to levels that are less than ideal. To do so, they use math, creating models of neuron networks and studying how the brain’s cells talk to each other. At the end of the day, they get theoretical predictions, which they then test by collaborating with experimental research groups.

This article was published on the blog elevatorscience, a project that evolved from the Berlin Science Communication Award.

Further information

The website of the Computational neurophysicist group at Humboldt-Universität


Prof. Dr. Susanne Schreiber
Head of research group

phone: +49 (0)30 2093-98405