Detlef H Heck

Department Head and Professor


I am a systems neuroscientist with over 30 years of research, teaching, and mentoring experience. Born and raised near Cologne, Germany, I started my academic education in Biology at the University of Mainz, Germany. Later, I moved to the University of Tübingen in southern Germany to focus on Neuroscience, where I completed my masters and PhD thesis at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biological Cybernetics. After a brief year as a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, USA, I first accepted a faculty position at the University of Freiburg, Germany, then moved to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, TN, USA, and finally accepted the position of Head of the Department for Biomedical Sciences in Duluth, MN.

Research Summary

Principal areas of research center on the structure and function of the cerebellar cortical network, cerebro-cerebellar interaction, dynamics of inter-areal neuronal communication, influence of breathing on brain activity and function in healthy and diseased brains. 

No brain area operates in isolation. Short- and long-range connections form complex networks that enable brain areas to collaborate in a context-dependent manner, responding to internal and external cues to promote survival optimizing behavior. The neocortex and the cerebellum are two key players in this concert. They are reciprocally connected via massive fiber bundles and have both jointly and proportionately increased in size during vertebrate evolution. One focus of our research is to investigate the neuronal mechanisms of cerebro-cerebellar interaction to understand the involvement of the cerebellum in cognitive functions in healthy brains and the link between cerebellar neuropathology and cognitive disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. 

Our second research focus is on the role of breathing in organizing brain activity through respiration-coupled neuronal rhythms. We were the first to report that breathing, via olfactory bulb activity, rhythmically modulates neuronal activity in the neocortex outside of the olfactory system. Our results also showed that the power of high-frequency (40-100Hz) gamma oscillations is modulated in phase with breathing. Gamma oscillations are strongly implicated with cognitive function, which led us to suggest that breathing may directly influence cognitive functions. Brain-breath coupling has since developed into a rapidly growing new research field. Our focus continues to be on the neuronal mechanisms underlying respiratory modulation of neuronal activity in different brain areas, implications of brain-breath coupling for cognitive functions, mental health, and the development of breath-based treatments. 

Teaching Summary

  • Curriculum development for graduate programs.
  • Course director, lecturer, neuroscience graduate program courses.
  • Course director, lecturer, and lab director for neuroanatomy courses for medical and dental students.
  • Recipient of Outstanding Lecturer Award from students in the UTHSC College of Dentistry, as course director for Neuroanatomy.
  • Nominee for the Student Government Association Executive Council (SGAEC) Excellence in Teaching Award.
  • Mentor for three masters and seven PhD students and four postdoctoral fellows.


PhD, Max-Planck-Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen and Eberhard-Karls-University, Tübingen, Germany
MS, Max-Planck-Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen and Eberhard-Karls-University, Tübingen, Germany
BS, Johannes-Gutenberg-University, Mainz, Germany
Major: Biology

Honors and Recognition

Reviewer, NIH Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1 IFCN-U (02), NIH
International Reviewer, National Research Agency, France
Best Paper Award, Oct. 2022 Prague, Czech Republic, IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics (SMC2022)
International Reviewer, Wellcome Trust, Brain and Behavioral Sciences, United Kingdom
Reviewer, Autism Speaks Postdoctoral Fellowship Program
Reviewer, NIH Pathophysiological Basis of Mental Disorders and Addictions Review Committee, NIH
International reviewer, European Science Foundation (ESF) Odysseus Program
Cornet Award, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, College of Medicine, Office of Research
Reviewer, NIH Fellowship study section review panels: Mechanisms of Sensory, Perceptual, and Cognitive Processes (ZRG1 F02B-D), NIH
International Grant Reviewer for government and non-government funding organizations: European Research Council, Austria, United Kingdom, Netherlands, France, Germany, Denmark, Israel, and Canada.
Travel Stipend: North America Treaty Organization (NATO) Advanced Science Institute (ASI) "Ionic Channels Neurons, and the Brain" in Erice, Italy, NATO
Postdoctoral Fellowship Award, German Science Foundation (DFG)
Post-doctoral Fellowship Award, Max-Planck Society, Germany
Pre-doctoral Fellowship Awar, Max-Planck Society, Germany

Professional Memberships

Society for Neuroscience
Society for Research on Cerebellum, Founding Member
Grants and Patents

Grants and Patents

Selected Grants

Other Grants

Award: Defining functional circuits between CN molecular subpopulations and the cerebral cortex
Principal Investigator: Detlef Heck
Role: Co-I
Sponsoring Organization: NIH/NIMH
Award Dates: 2019 - 2023
Award: Novel mechanistic link between metabolic changes and dementia - potential role of miRNA21
Principal Investigator: Detlef Heck
Role: Co-I
Sponsoring Organization: NIH/NIA
Award Dates: 2018 - 2023
Award: Neuronal mechanisms of cerebellar cognitive function
Principal Investigator: Detlef Heck
Role: PI
Sponsoring Organization: NIH/NIMH
Award Dates: 2018 - 2023



Department of Biomedical Sciences
1035 University Drive
Duluth, MN 55812