2019 Finalist András Szőnyi, M.D., Ph.D., Hungarian Academy of Sciences

András Szőnyi, M.D., Ph.D.

András Szőnyi joined the group of Dr. Tamás Freund at the Institute of Experimental Medicine (IEM) in Budapest, Hungary in 2006. During his years of studying Medicine at the Semmelweis University in Hungary, he continued research under the mentorship of Dr. Gábor Nyiri, where he studied the functional anatomy of the hippocampus. As a Ph.D. student, he focused on the better understanding of the role of ascending subcortical pathways in memory formation. He discovered that the majority of the median raphe cells communicate with the forebrain via glutamatergic neurotransmission, and he described the role of an ascending brainstem inhibitory pathway in the regulation of contextual memory formation. András Szőnyi is currently working in the group of Dr. Zoltán Nusser at the IEM, and in the group of Dr. Andreas Lüthi at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, Switzerland, studying cellular mechanisms of learning and memory formation.

Conducting memory formation: The nucleus incertus in the brainstem orchestrates the formation of contextual memories
Hippocampal pyramidal cells encode memory engrams, which guide adaptive behavior. Selection of engram-forming cells is regulated by dendrite-targeting interneurons, which inhibit pyramidal cells that are not required for memory formation. András Szőnyi, under the mentorship of Dr. Gábor Nyiri, found that inhibitory neurons of the brainstem nucleus incertus selectively inhibit dendrite-targeting interneurons in the hippocampus. His work showed that inhibitory nucleus incertus neurons receive inputs from brain areas processing important environmental information, they are strongly activated by salient environmental inputs and they can bidirectionally modify the strength of contextual memories. This work shows an unexpectedly specific role of an ascending inhibitory brainstem pathway in controlling contextual memory formation. András Szőnyi hopes that this discovery will help to better understand the process of episodic memory encoding, and that it will lead to the identification of new therapeutic targets in the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders such as phobias, posttraumatic stress or depression.

For András Szőnyi‘s full essay, see Science online at sciencemag.org