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Bernstein Center Freiburg – Past, Present and Future

Timeline and Evolution of the BCF Research Program

(The following text stems from the 2018 BCF Evaluation Report.)

On January 28, 2010 the University of Freiburg officially announced the foundation of the Bernstein Center Freiburg (BCF) as the central scientific facility at the University for coordinating research in the areas of Computational Neuroscience and Neurotechnology.

The scientific goals of the BCF were formulated in the Foundation Statutes: “The BCF is intended to bring together existing research projects in the field of computational neuroscience and neurotechnology, particularly those with third party funding, and to provide a basis for new interdisciplinary projects in this field. The scientific focus is on the integration of the corresponding multidisciplinary research approaches in natural sciences, medicine, cognitive sciences and technical sciences. The center aims to create synergies with non-university research institutions and industry in the sense of a regional and supraregional cluster formation, to create a platform for education, training, consulting and scientific conferences, and to actively promote and support new initiatives of this kind. In addition, the extremely efficient network of national and international cooperation on these topics that has been established over the past years is to be continuously and systematically expanded.”

The foundation of the BCF built upon and brought together a number of interdisciplinary research projects in these fields, some of them large, some smaller, all third party funded and all with participating scientists from multiple Faculties at Freiburg University and beyond, both nationally and internationally. Historically, the two most important ones were the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience (BCCN; 2004-2011) and the Bernstein Focus Neurotechnology (BFNT; 2008-2017), both large-scale research programs, both funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

The careful combination of the scientific goals of these two large-scale research programs formed the scientific basis for the research program established at the BCF at its foundation in 2010 and for the years following it.

The year 2012 brought the inauguration of the Excellence Cluster “BrainLinks-BrainTools” (BLBT), a new interdisciplinary research consortium at Freiburg University, funded by the “Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft” (DFG) in the framework of the German Excellence Initiative. The scientific goal of BLBT, as formulated on its website ( is “to reach a new level in the interaction between technical systems and the brain, allowing them to directly communicate with each other. This requires the development of flexible yet stable, and adaptive yet robust applications of brain-machine interface technology.”

Not surprisingly in view of the BCF research program formulated above, the BCF played a key role in establishing BLBT. This is best documented by two simple facts: (1) About half the number of BCF members were core members of BLBT, and (2) half the number of research projects in BLBT had BCF members among its principal investigators.

In line with the establishment of BLBT, focusing on the development and application of novel neurotechnology, neurotechnology research within the BCF was mostly reallocated to BLBT. This provided the BCF research program with the opportunity to further evolve and initiate new lines of research, seeking answers to new questions. Thus, with the Carl-Zeiss Foundation supporting the BCF research infrastructure, the BCF in 2015 initiated a new research line, focusing on the Computational Neuroscience of Brain Disease. Here, the research goals were formulated as: “The immediate aim is to create a framework in which the systematic development of the content and methodology of the new research area "Computational Neuroscience of Brain Disease" can be achieved. We consider three research approaches to be strategically important:

  • Combination of experimental approaches of systemic neurosciences, in particular animal models for brain diseases, with computer simulation and mathematical modelling
  • Investigation of the neuronal mechanisms of biological function and clinically relevant brain dysfunction at the network level
  • Further development of the specific methodology for the modelling of biological brains and the analysis of complex neuronal data.”

As documented elsewhere on this website (, this increased emphasis on mechanisms of brain disease was indeed successfully established, as illustrated by the two focus areas on Epilepsy and on Basal Ganglia network dynamics in function and dysfunction.

One of the key neuroscientific concepts in many research projects at the BCF over the past years, both in experiments and in models, both at the cellular and at network levels, has been the notion of excitation-inhibition balance. While this concept has undoubtedly greatly contributed to increasing our understanding of mechanisms of brain function and dysfunction, recent developments have increasingly started to include further notions. Foremost amongst these are the role of plasticity and adaptivity, both functional and structural, including homeostatic regulation, ranging down from sub-cellular and cellular levels, up to network and systemic levels and, related to them, possible mechanisms of motor control and motor learning, both in function and dysfunction. An additional emphasis for developing new research questions has been the acquisition of new scientific members in the Faculties of Medicine, of Biology and of Engineering in recent years. Thus, several new research initiatives at the BCF are currently in progress.

The BCF is an active member of the Bernstein Network Computational Neuroscience ( and houses its Coordination Site, which is funded by the Helmholtz Association.

The BCF has been and continues to be lead partner at Freiburg University in strengthening ties in neuroscience research and education with the Universities of Strasbourg (France) and Basel (Switzerland) in the trinational network Neurex, resulting in a series of joint projects receiving funding from the EU Interreg Program continuously since 2002.