Center for Neuropathology

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The Center for Neuropathology and Prion Research (ZNP) in Munich has a tradition going back more than 200 years. Descriptive neuroanatomical research in Munich started with Ignaz Döllinger, the first professor of anatomy after the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) was relocated from Ingolstadt to Munich in 1826, and was continued by Nikolaus Rüdinger, who compared the brains of famous people. Bernhard von Gudden, professor of psychiatry and head of the institution Auf den Lüften in Haidhausen, developed new neuroanatomical sectioning and staining methods from the middle of the century and can be regarded as the founder of experimental neuroanatomy. The staining technique for the selective display of nerve cells developed by Franz Nissl in 1884 as part of a student work at the Munich faculty under von Gudden became known worldwide. After his death with King Ludwig II in 1886, the tradition shaped by von Gudden was continued by his successors in the chair of psychiatry (e. g. by Anton Bumm) with somewhat reduced intensity, until Emil Kraepelin was appointed professor of psychiatry at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in 1903.

He founded the Royal Psychiatric Clinic and was one of the first psychiatrists in Germany to establish laboratory research in order to identify possible biological causes of mental illness. Alois Alzheimer was one of the first scientists to habilitate with his work in this laboratory and after whom a dementia disease that he described histologically was named in a textbook by Kraepelin in 1910. The anatomical laboratory headed by Alois Alzheimer gained an internationally recognized reputation, in which the best-known scientists of the time worked and sat in.

After Alzheimer had left Munich in 1912, Emil Kraepelin set about implementing his idea of an interdisciplinary research facility independent of the university, which in addition to a clinical department should also include a brain pathology, a serology and a genealogical-demographic department. With the financial support of the US philanthropist James Loeb, the German Research Institute for Psychiatry in Munich (DFA) was finally opened in 1917 – in the midst of the turmoil of the First World War. The aim was to connect clinics and science. Since no own premises were available, the newly founded institution was initially housed in the psychiatric university hospital.

Among the department heads and directors of the DFA in the early years were well-known names such as Franz Nissl, discoverer and namesake of the Nissl stain, Walther Spielmeyer, author of the world-famous textbook "Histopathology of the Nervous System", and Korbinian Brodmann, discoverer and namesake of the Brodmann areas in the cerebral cortex. Thanks to the fruitful collaboration of the scientists, the German Research Institute earned a reputation as a “Mecca of brain research”, which made it known far beyond the national borders, although she still did not have her own building, but was accommodated in the psychiatric clinic of the university.

In 1924, the German Research Institute for Psychiatry was finally affiliated to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG), before four years later, thanks to the financial support of the Rockefeller Foundation, it finally got its own building in the Kraepelinstraße, which housed the scientific departments and the administration. The clinical department, which had been opened in 1922 in the municipal hospital in Munich-Schwabing, remained there for the time being.

Spielmeyer acted as head of the brain pathology department and in 1926, after the death of Emil Kraepelin, also took over the post of the director. Despite the double burden, he managed to increase the reputation of his laboratory even further by making it the best and most modern of its time. Although he died unexpectedly in 1935, Walther Spielmeyer had a major influence on the development of neuropathology in Germany. Many of the world's best-known representatives of the subject emerged from the ‘Spielmeyer School’ and remained attached to the methods of their mentor.

The German Research Institute for Psychiatry survived the Second World War - but not without collaborating with the National Socialists. The accusation of having used brain preparations from people murdered by the National Socialists' euthanasia programs for research purposes and of having kept some of them to this day weighs heavily. However, the management of the Max Planck Institute, which emerged from the DFA, is trying to come to terms with the matter and strives to identify all murder victims, hand over their preparations and then bury them appropriately. Ernst Rüdin, Director of the German Research Institute during the Nazi era and a staunch advocate of "racial hygiene", was instrumental in drafting the "Law on the Prevention of Sick Offspring", on the basis of which the euthanasia programs for mentally ill people were carried out.

After the Second World War in 1945, the neuropathologist Willibald Scholz, a former student of Spielmeyer, was appointed the new head of the DFA. Although funds were scarce and both its building and its reputation were destroyed, Scholz managed to keep the German Research Institute for Psychiatry running. At the instigation of the Western Allies, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, to which the DFA belonged, was to be renamed in 1948. The politically irreproachable and internationally renowned physicist and Nobel Laureate Max Planck, who is considered as the founder of quantum physics, was chosen as the namesake. The founding of the Max Planck Society represented a new democratic beginning after some members of its predecessor had collaborated with the Nazis, and made unethical decisions or were guilty of complicity. During Willibald Scholz's tenure, the German Research Institute for Psychiatry was officially integrated into the Max Planck Society in 1954 and renamed the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry.

The Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry experienced a radical change when, in 1961, the neuropathologist and student of Spielmeyer Gerd Peters took over the management. Determined to transform the rather conventional research facility into a modern science facility, Peters gave innovative and progressive fields the space to develop further. He established departments for neurophysiology, neuropharmacology, and even behavioral research on primates. In addition to the brain pathology department, there was now also one for experimental neuropathology. This expansion led to the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry finally being divided into two equal, independent institutions: the clinical and the theoretical institute, which became the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology in 1998. Despite the separation, the principles that had been the cornerstones of the institution from the beginning remained: interdisciplinary research, scientific collaboration and innovative ideas. The MPI for Psychiatry and the MPI for Neurobiology still exist in Munich today.

At the same time, in the early 1960s, Walter Büngeler, for many years head of the Pathology Institute at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, also focused on expansion and interdisciplinarity. Amongst others, he created a neuropathology department within his facility, which was set up by the experienced neuropathologist Otto Stochdorph. It was intended to build on the long, successful tradition in the field of brain research in Munich and was rooted in the spirit of pioneering scientists such as Alois Alzheimer, Emil Kraepelin, Franz Nissl, Walther Spielmeyer and Willibald Scholz.

Neuropathology quickly established itself at the LMU as an independent medical subject, until it was finally detached from the Pathology Institute and became an independent Institute for Neuropathology. A development that was also evident at other well-known universities in Germany, where independent chairs were created for the subject.

The close connection between the Institute of Neuropathology at the LMU and the Max Planck Institute for Theoretical Psychiatry was shown by the appointment of Parviz Mehraein as chair of Neuropathology in 1983. Before he took over the chair, he worked for 16 years with Gerd Peters at the MPI. This resulted in a close friendship and together they remained true to the spirit of their predecessors.

After Mehraein retired in 2000, Hans Kretzschmar, an expert in the field of prion diseases, took over the management of the institute. Under him it became the Center for Neuropathology and Prion Research (ZNP) and was given its own building on the high-tech campus of the LMU in Großhadern in 2004. Unfortunately, Hans Kretzschmar died in January 2014 at the age of 61.

Today, the ZNP is one of the largest and best-equipped institutes of its kind. Jochen Herms has been its director since 2016. The research focuses on investigating molecular pathomechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease with modern microscopic methods in mouse models and the development of novel approaches for the diagnosis and therapy of those diseases.