Published on 14.03.2023

Two new SNSF Consolidator Grants at UNIFR!

Two Assistant Professors at the University of Fribourg, Prof. Petra Vetter at the Department of Psychology and Prof. Mario Prsa in Medicine number among the 30 researchers to have been awarded a prestigious SNSF Consolidator Grant (out of 182 applications), a tool that funds the 5-year projects of researchers whose impact on their field can already be felt at an international level.

The University of Fribourg is therefore not only proud to count among its researchers such two internationally renowned academics, but also applauds their dynamism in seeking further funding for their research desiderata. The SNSF Consolidator Grants are intended to fund 5-year projects, and were implemented as a temporary measure due to Switzerland’s current status of non-associated third country in Horizon Europe, meaning that researchers at Swiss Institutions cannot apply anymore for the ERC’s own Consolidator scheme.

Prof. Vetter is a cognitive neuroscientist whose research focusses on perception, through sight and the other senses, and how this correlates in the human brain. Her Consolidator research project proposes to discover whether people who are blind from birth map out space in the same way as sighted people, a question that arises since this process of mapping geographical locations usually involves “visual” cortices in the brain. In other words, Prof. Vetter will study whether all brains organize spatial location maps in the same way, or whether such an organization depends on vision. Some of Vetter’s recent results suggest, indeed, that blind people use their “visual” cortex to process sounds. In order to test whether spatial location mapping is a universal process, her team will use sound and touch to elicit spatial maps in both congenitally blind and blindfolded sighted subjects, while at the same time using an ultra-high field functional MRI as well as transcranial magnetic brain stimulation. This research could have an important impact, notably on the development of visual prostheses and aids for blind and visually impaired individuals.

The neuroscientific research project of Prof. Prsa, will also focus on sensory perception, in so far as it will study proprioception, the “sixth sense” that enables us to perceive where different parts of our body are located in space. This sensory modality is often overlooked and understudied, notably because it is very difficult to devise experiments that precisely manipulate it. We therefore know very little about how it works: where the perceptually relevant proprioceptive information originates from, and how it is in turn represented by neurons in the sensory cortex. Prof. Prsa’s team will thus engage upon an ambitious quest for the origin of conscious proprioception in the mouse forelimb, and functionally trace its path to their brain. This research will be made possible by adopting a flurry of state of the art techniques and innovations, such as X-ray guided robotic control, which will help position the forelimb in a very precise manner, micro-robot implants or nanoparticle-mediated optogenetic stimulation to activate the proprioceptors in the limb, and two-photon microscopy to image proprioceptive neuronal responses along the ascending neural pathway. In the same way as Prof. Vetter’s research, Prof Prsa’s has an important potential impact for prostheses. Indeed, in order to replace a paralyzed limb, a neuroprosthesis needs to supply the brain with proprioceptive information about its movement in space. Understanding proprioception could therefore permit the development of next generation bi-directional neuroprosthetics. Further, this research could also give us crucial insight into disorders that affect the ability to sense the movement of one’s limbs.

A 2023 call for SNSF Consolidator Grants is at the moment under consideration by the State Secretariat for Education, Research, and Innovation (SERI). Should it happen, the deadline for application will probably be similar to that of last year, which allowed for a pre-registration by 1st of May, and a deadline for the submission of the application by the 1st of June 2022. The Research Promotion Service will inform UNIFR researchers should such a call open, and is available for assistance during the application process. Feel free to contact us at: