Dr Adam Ranson interview

“I am focused on understanding how your brain learns to see”

Adam Ranson has just arrived from Cardiff to join our team at INc. He investigates how our brain senses the world around us and adapts to it. He brings with him a two-photon microscopy, a cutting-edge technology that enables doing in vivo studies of the brain. We are sure this is going to be a great opportunity  for everyone in our Institute. In order to get to know a bit more about him and his research, we interviewed him:

Hello Adam, welcome to our Institute! What are your main areas of interest, in Research?

My main long term interest is understanding the sensory areas of the brain, in particular how visual information is processed.

You have millions of neurons there, and each neuron has to connect to a few thousand other neurons and somehow, through these patterns of connectivity between these millions of neurons, our perceptual impression of the world is generated. I am particularly interested in how the connectivity of these circuits forms during early life.

Which are the sensory areas you are more focused on?

As well as the visual cortex I have worked a bit with somatosensory cortex in rodents. Mice have a very nice part of the brain called the barrel cortex, where the whiskers direct information. It is a very cool part of the brain, where there are chunks of brain, called columns, where each of the column corresponds to one whisker. You can actually see when you look from above a recognisable topographic representation of how whiskers are positioned on mouse’s face.

Plus, I am getting more and more interested in where visual information goes after it gets into the early part of the brain, because then it needs to be used by other parts of your brain to guide actions. So, I am trying to understand how this information flows within your brain and results in, for example, your hand being able to reach out accurately to grab an object that you see.

If you had to write a headline that summarizes your research, what would it be?

That’s a difficult one, but I would say “I am focused on understanding how your brain learns to see”. Seeing isn’t a thing that just happens, you learn to see; like my 1-year-old kid, now he is learning to use visual information to guide his actions.

It means that depending on how you learn, the sensory circuits are different?

Yes, exactly. This is a sort of Nature vs. Nurture debate, about how much of the way these connections form is irrespective of your visual experience. I am very interested in looking longitudinally how the circuits change when you start having visual experience.

What could you tell us about the two-photon microscopy that you use in your research?

It is a type of fluorescence microscopy. The main advantage of it over other techniques is that you can penetrate relatively deeply into the brain. You can penetrate around 1mm… it doesn’t sound like very much, but that’s a big mass of the cortex of a mouse. In addition, it allows you to look at neurons in vivo, to a lot of neurons at once and it is very adaptable to look a lot of different things: structure of neurons, activity of neurons, astrocytes, microglia, etc. It is a very versatile technique.

How do you think your research can impact society?

One of the important ways the research can impact society is to help people to understand how brains work. We, the neuroscientists, probably still know very little about brains, but society knows very little about what we do know. Additionally, when you start talking to interested people they want to know more about it. So, a main contribution from my perspective is to give people the enjoyment and the excitement of understanding how this mysterious part of our body works. Plus, there is obviously the epidemic of mental diseases that we hope to contribute in solving in some way, but I think it is important to emphasize how difficult it is to do that. Evidence shows how improvement is very slow despite the enormous investment, it is extremely challenging.

So your research would be at the bottom part of understanding the brain?

Before I came here, I was working in Cardiff University, in Neuroscience and Mental Health Research. There, I did a lot of fundamental research but I also worked in translational research, with mouse models of Autism, trying to understand how sensory processing might be different in those models. My last couple of stuides have been related to this disease.

Talking about collaborations… are there any groups here in the INC you would like to collaborate with?

Yes, Carlos Barcia, who has been my main contact here and helped me to settle in. He is the first person I have been talking to, actually, but we see a lot of potential lines of collaborations. He does some work about how brain vasculature may reorganize when you have a tumour. With the two photon microscope you can inject some dye into the mouse and this causes all the vasculature to become fluorescent, so you can monitor it longitudinally and see how it’s morphology charges over time.

So you think the two-photon microscope can help other groups in the INC?

Yes, it is very adaptable in terms of types of cells to study – microglia, astrocytes, neurons – and different processes within the cells – dendritic plasticity, visualising mitochondria, etc. You can get good insights using this.

Great, thank you very much, Adam. We wish you the best in our Insitute!

Laura Llobet