In the bewildering complexity of the nervous system, researchers in sensory neuroscience tend to conceptually separate individual modalities for isolated analysis. In fact, sensory neuroscientists frequently identify themselves as investigators of only, for example, vision or olfaction. While this reductionist approach is powerful in many aspects, it entails a risk of oversimplification. Though more practical, reductionist analysis of sensory neurobiology contrasts sharply with the nervous system’s everyday operation, which generally integrates multiple crossmodal cues. Therefore, with advances in our modality-specific understanding and the emergence of novel experimental and analytical tools, it is time to address the interplay between different sensory modalities. We believe that this approach (MultiSenses) will be key to a more holistic understanding of sensory-guided behaviors.

Multisensory processing has traditionally been studied on a single cell level, revealing several basic principles of crossmodal integration. Neural circuits, however, exhibit an additional layer of integration that transcends the complexity of any given cell, with dynamic characteristics whose analysis requires sophisticated computation. Ultimately, knowledge derived from cell, network and systems analysis needs to be combined to gain a realistic understanding of sensory-guided behaviors, adding yet another layer of complexity. To meet this multi-scale challenge and gain insights into the principles of crossmodal coding, this RTG will address multisensory integration from various experimental and analytical angles and across scales. We expect this strategy (MultiScales) to be instrumental in generating a wealth of novel information on multisensory biology.

The unique twofold MultiSenses–MultiScales approach (Fig. 1) is particularly suited for a doctoral training program.
First, this strategy requires concerted collaborative actions and expertise from several groups. The RTG provides an ideal platform for such efforts.
Second, the approach entails that a number of individual projects are intertwined and complement each other. Together, these projects generate volumes of information, which synergistically add to a conceptual framework of crossmodal coding.
Third, the breadth and depth inherent to the MultiSenses–MultiScales theme will expose RTG trainees to a wide range of (sub)fields, concepts, and approaches in modern neuroscience. Consequently, doctoral researchers will be prepared to embrace interdisciplinary approaches to scientific inquiry and, ultimately, to flourish as independent investigators.
Fourth, the technical challenges implicit in the MultiSenses–MultiScales strategy can only be met by synergy. Here, teamwork and complementary expertise provide true added value to the individual projects.

Fig. 1: The RTG core concept – analysis of multimodal integration across senses and scales.

Within a scale versus modality matrix, each RTG faculty member covers distinct areas of expertise (colored dots). Key questions will be addressed at multiple levels of brain function (schematically exemplified by processing stages along the olfactory pathway; vertical axis). This ‘MultiScale’ theme will provide RTG researchers with a conceptual framework and direct causal explanations for how the brain’s sensory machinery drives high-level functions such as behavior and cognition. Importantly, each research project will span at least two levels both horizontally and vertically. Core PIs: AL (Lampert), BK (Kampa), DM (Merhof), JF (Fels), JS (Schulz), MD (Diesmann), MR (Rothermel), MS (Spehr), PC (Carloni), SG (Grün), TM (Marquardt) Associated local experts: FH (Haiss), FM (Müller), HW (Wagner), PW (Walter), UH (Habel).

The consortium is ideally suited to investigate multisensory integration. RTG faculty combine state-of-the-art optophysiological in vitro and in vivo approaches, share diverse but highly complementary areas of interest that have already generated several joint publications, and apply advanced analytical approaches. Collective interests among RTG faculty range from cellular neurophysiology to circuit, systems and clinical neuroscience, cognition, and behavior as well as computational neuroscience, advanced image analysis, and simulation. The participating animal research laboratories focus on model organisms amenable to genetic manipulation. In addition, human research allows translation within the consortium. This diversity of models and methods – centered on the common topic of multisensory integration – will offer RTG trainees a broad range of options and reflects the multidisciplinary nature of the modern neurobiological inquiry. The physical juxtaposition of RWTH’s Department of Biology, Institute for Imaging & Computer Vision and University Medical Center will further foster this collaborative endeavour. Importantly, while each PI has demonstrated outstanding productivity and a strong commitment to collaborative research in the past, concerted efforts as a consortium will now enable each faculty member to go substantially beyond their respective core expertise. This will create the synergy required to break new ground and address timely issues in multisensory integration.

Fig 2 A ‘toolbox’ to address multisensory integration from various angles.

The consortium’s expertise in data acquisition, analysis and translation allows a truly integrated approach. The three core areas of expertise are well represented among RTG faculty, creating the synergy required for holistic problem-solving.

While dissertation research will constitute the core of doctoral training, a versatile and flexible qualification program (Fig. 3) will prepare trainees to make significant contributions in neuroscience. Notably, we aim to provide RTG members with all the knowledge and skills that allow them to enter various career paths, not only within but also beyond academia.
RTG training will be built upon both traditional elements that are common among leading educational programs and innovative approaches that broaden graduate and postdoctoral training. The modular and tailored qualification program combines courses with complementary training activities (that specifically foster interdisciplinary collaborative research). All these activities will be embedded in a competitive and collaborative environment. The building blocks of the qualification program will be:

  1. a coherent, yet flexible curriculum
  2. laboratory rotations
  3. seminars, journal clubs, symposia, etc.
  4. integration
  5. internationalization
  6. an innovative learning environment
  7. professional skill development
  8. career paths and opportunities
  9. transition of trainee cohorts
  10. mentorship

Notably, aside from all efforts to improve and expand trainee education, successful completion of dissertation research will remain the central activity of RTG fellows. In fact, the careful design of the individualized qualification plans will ensure that trainees will not be overburdened.

Fig. 3: A versatile and flexible qualification program.

Dissertation research will constitute the core of doctoral training. In parallel, the RTG will prepare students to become independent and successful neuroscientists in both academic and nontraditional settings. Supervision will follow a structured mentorship program. Thus, RTG fellows will be trained in a nurturing environment and provided opportunities to cultivate their individual professional identities.