The nervous system is our most complex organ system. Despite its complexity, it consists of mainly two cell types: neurons, which transmit, process, and store information, and glial cells, which support neurons in many different ways. Of all cells in the body, neurons have by far the most complex morphology. During development, they extend a number of thin cellular processes, first one axon, which sends electrical signals to the next cell and can reach a length of several meters, and then several shorter, highly branched dendrites, that act as signal receivers.
A fundamental and yet unanswered question in biology remains how neurons assume their complex and highly polarized shapes. Neurons are born as simple, spherical cells. They start extending their axon either during the process of cell migration or after they have migrated to their final position in the body, which is then followed by elaboration of multiple dendrites. Although this is one of the most fundamental processes in neuroscience, how and why axons grow and cells thus break their symmetry to become polarized is currently not well understood. This gap in our knowledge is even more surprising as axon (re)formation and growth are also key processes during regeneration of the nervous system, which usually fails in the central nervous system of higher organisms including humans (e.g., after spinal cord injuries).
During past decades, neuroscience research has mainly focused on chemical signals controlling nervous system development and regeneration. Yet, the (re)formation of neuronal axons, their subsequent (re)growth and guidance through thick layers of neural tissue, and even the folding of the brain all involve motion and must thus be driven by forces. However, while our understanding of the biochemical and molecular control of these processes is increasing rapidly, the contribution of mechanics remains poorly understood.
Only a comparatively small number of groups worldwide have recently taken on the challenge and started incorporating biophysical approaches in their research investigating how the nervous system develops and functions. Recent progress in the field, facilitated by the development of novel experimental and theoretical methods, has led to new insights and great interest in interdisciplinary studies of “neuromechanics”. The aim of this WE-Heraeus-Seminar is to bring together the world leaders in the nascent field of neuromechanics, experimentalists and theorists, physicists and biologists alike, who are working either on fundamental or more applied questions, to openly discuss exciting new findings, long-standing questions, and the future of the field, to have an intense exchange of ideas, and, most importantly, to inspire the next generation of young scientists. We will promote interdisciplinary collaborations amongst the participants of the seminar and support young scientists in choosing their upcoming career steps.