Interview with Dr Joan Josep Guinovart

“We need to make people aware that they have to donate money for their universities, research centres, hospitals, etc.”

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Last Friday, October 14th, Dr Joan Josep Guinovart, Director of the Institut de Recerca Biomèdica de Barcelona (IRB), gave the Inaugural Lecture of the Official Master of Neuroscience at the Institute.

The Laia Acarin room was full of students and researchers of all ages listening to Dr Guinovart’s latest discoveries and research, which are focused on the negative consequences of the glycogen accumulation in neurons.

1- You are the director of the IRB and also the president of the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. How can you reconcile the laboratory work with the management position?

This is the normal career for many people: first you are a student, then you are a post-doc researcher, after that you become a junior researcher of a leader, then if you are lucky they promote you, you get some leadership and management functions… and sometimes life make you assume big responsibilities.

I do go to the laboratory, but in the future I think I will like to be able to spend more time doing research. There is a moment in which you can leave responsibilities and come back to the start: it is like a cycle that it takes off and then suddenly descends.

2- Before you funded the IRB, an independent research centre, you were a researcher for a public university. Why did you decide not to do research from the university?

The decision was not made based on not doing research from the university, but rather the idea that I wanted to do research in a more interdisciplinary work environment. The university has the problem of being organized for teaching: colleges, departments, etc. Luckily nowadays this is in the process of being solved, because these separations in which researchers are working only with people of the same background are not good for research.

3- In what country would you like to do your research?

At my homeland, I’m completely ok about being here. I think that my whole life has been pulling and fighting for the research in Catalonia: to make it of international quality as it is nowadays.

4- Statistics shows that a few women have leadership positions in science. Do you think you would had more difficulties in your career if you had been a woman?

Sure! And I am so committed to change it. The problem is that it is not only depending of one thing, for which you can make a law or a general rule. The specific responsibility is not clear because it is something for the society at large. We have to change social attitudes, gender roles, men selfishness …

But I am so positive about it. It is changing so fast: around 100 years ago the society considered not appropriated for a woman to study medicine, and nowadays 70% of the medicine students are women. With management positions will be the same. Women are currently studying bachelor degrees, master degrees, PhD programs… the problem comes when they have to combine family and motherhood with science. We have to create the proper environments to make it possible. And I do not have any doubt that we will see it in just one generation. We have come a long way to reach to this point and we only need one step forward.

5- Two years ago IRB made a video in which scientists danced to raise funds. How is IRB funded?

The basic costs, such as turning on the lights or opening the doors, are supported by the Generalitat (The local Government of Catalonia), but research is funded by competitive Grant calls. We have quite a few European grants from the ERC and H2020 programs. However, what we need is more implication from philanthropy.

The big difference between our competitors, in the USA, and us is that, besides they receive more public funds, they also have a strong contribution from philanthropy and private funds. Here we need to make people aware that they have to donate money, not only for La Marató de TV3 (A very successful telethon organized for the local TV in Catalonia), but also for their universities, research centres, hospitals, etc.

The general complain is that the fiscal return is too little… But I don’t agree with that. You can donate up to 150 euros with a 75% fiscal return. And if everybody donated 150 euros it would be a lot!

6- So far the video has had more than one million visits…

Yes and apart for fundraising it has been very useful to make people know the IRB and to create a good attitude towards research, which benefits everybody.

7- Which of your qualities do you think that is the most important for being a good scientist?

The passion. You do research for two reasons: to escape from the distress of not knowing and for the pleasure of learning.

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8- Your research is focussed on the metabolism of glycogen. What is glycogen?

It is a glucose store to be used when we may need it.

9- And what does glycogen have to do with nervous system diseases?

It was thought that Glycogen did not have an important role in the nervous system but then it was discovered its presence in neurons and astrocytes. Neurons have an active metabolism of glycogen but they try not to accumulate it because it is harmful and may cause diseases.

10- In your opinion, what is the most promising therapeutic field?

It is the antibodies era. We are living the boom of therapeutic antibodies. Antibodies against molecules in the blood, against some specific receptors in specific cell types, etc. Antibodies bring the possibility of being very selective for a therapeutic target.

11- We read that your family had a cinema when you were a child and you spent many hours there. In that moment, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Well, look; one of my problems is that I do not know if I have reached my goals in life because I do not know what they were. I do not remember. And this makes me feel really frustrated… (Laughs)

Roser Bastida Barau

 

1 minuto y medio: el Alzheimer

(Entrevista al Dr. Carlos Saura)

¿Qué es la enfermedad de Alzheimer ?

El Alzheimer es una enfermedad neurodegenerativa que, en general, afecta a personas mayores de 70 años, y que está caracterizada por pérdida progresiva de las capacidades cognitivas , especialmente la memoria.

¿Por qué se produce pérdida de memoria en la enfermedad de Alzheimer ?

Los pacientes afectados por la enfermedad presentan una pérdida funcional y muerte de neuronas en regiones del cerebro cuya función, entre otras, es el de procesar y almacenar la memoria.

 

El test del reloj se usa para evaluar las capacidades cognitivas de un paciente. Consiste en hacer que la persona dibuje un reloj marcando una hora determinada. Esta tarea implica el uso de diferentes áreas cognitivas (organización visual y motora, planificación y ejecución de la tarea encomendada, memoria), por lo que se puede ver si estas areas del cerebro funcionan correctamente.

¿La enfermedad de Alzheimer es hereditaria ?

La forma más común de la enfermedad, aquella que afecta a personas mayores de 65-70 años, no es hereditaria. Sin embargo, existen algunas alteraciones genéticas que afectan a personas jóvenes.

¿Se puede curar la enfermedad ?

Actualmente no existe un tratamiento curativo o que revierta los efectos de la enfermedad. Sin embargo, algunos tratamientos farmacológicos o de estimulación cognitiva retrasan y alivian ligeramente los síntomas de la enfermedad.

¿Se curará la enfermedad en el futuro?

Los nuevos tratamientos experimentales actuales intentan reducir la patología observada en el cerebro de los pacientes y estimular la función de las neuronas afectadas en la enfermedad. En el futuro, será necesario la combinación de tratamientos farmacológicos junto con terapias alternativas más precisas para combatirla enfermedad.

Interview with Dr Jaume Ferrer

“Exercise prepares the whole organism to respond more efficiently to stimuli that cause anxiety”

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Jaume Ferrer Lalanza (age 29)- Research Support Technician

1.- Jaume, tell us about your career until now.

I studied Psychology and during my last year of degree, I was captivated by the fact that it was possible to mimic and understand human behavior by using animal models. This led me to do my practicum at the Institut de Neurociències. Then, I continued with this research topic in my master degree and later on with my PhD project. During my PhD, I also had the chance of doing an international internship in Vancouver (Canada), where I learned different histological techniques, which I did not know well at that time. But the deeper I explored the histological aspect the more I realized that I preferred to dedicate myself to the behavioral aspect of neuroscience. Then, one year after my PhD dissertation, I got this position of supporting technician at the INc.

2.- Given your academic training, do you think that both disciplines, Psychology and Neurosciences, are integrated enough in your research?

That integration is very important, but it is not easy to implement. For me, although basic neuroscience allows understanding many of the mechanisms of the brain processing, it is also critical to know how those changes affect behavior. Especially, because understanding these behavioral outcomes are an increasing concern for our society.

3.- During you thesis studies, what kind of research did you perform?

Mainly, we tried to simulate people’s life styles in animal models. Particularly, we studied how physical exercise and fast food consumption contributes to obesity, and we evaluated its psychological effects, monitoring all the possible variables.

4.- What do you mean exactly with fast food?

It is the unhealthy food that we usually consume in some bars or fast food restaurants: such as hot dogs, bacon, muffins, cream cheese, etc. It was surprising to observe that although this diet was clearly harmful in many physiological aspects, it had however some beneficial effects: For example, anxiety in these animals decreased and, intriguingly, their sociability was improved. We hypothesized that these positive psychological effects could be one of the reasons why these types of diets are alarmingly increasing in our society.

5.- Do you think that this research with animal models can be transferred to the human behavior?

We think that we can extrapolate many of the data. In fact, our study was based on human routines (for example, the classical recommendation of 30 minutes of exercise) that we adapt to an animal model but minimizing the variables -rats don’t go to the movies, they don’t have problems at work, or they don’t discuss about who has to wash the dishes-. Then, with the results obtained in rat models, it is interesting to go back to the human scenario and use these data to revisit the recommendations that we take about diets and exercise.

6.- What did you discover about physical exercise?

The most relevant finding was the fact that exercise provided a benefit regarding the release of particular stress hormones. Exercise prepares the whole organism to respond more efficiently to stimuli that cause anxiety.

7.- Vindicate your job as a technician. What is the technician role in a research group?

Mainly, we give technical support in very important aspects of the research, specially when other researchers do not have the right time to dedicate to specific tasks, or providing the expertise of techniques in which they do not feel confident enough to do by themselves etc. I think that is a very important role and I believe that every research group has to integrate people with different profiles, including specialized technicians.

8.- Enlighten a little the present socioeconomic pessimism. What would you recommend to students that want to initiate a career in neuroscience?

I would recommend finding the right group in which they feel comfortable. Sometimes working on research is hard and, for me, the most important aspect is to feel motivated and supported by your group. I may say that this aspect cold be even more important than to find your favorite research subject; if it’s closely related to your essential goals, you will enjoy it as well.

I also recommend participating in all kind of activities: poster presentations in meetings; give scientific talks, participate in dissemination activities etc. Everything counts when you need to apply for scholarships. In my case, I didn’t get a post-doc scholarship for a few scoring points and, therefore, I would encourage everyone to participate in these kind of activities.

Listen to the whole interview here.

Josep Maria Calverol

Interview with Dr Raül Andero

“New techniques that are being developed will allow us to have precise control over the brain and allow us to cure psychiatric disorders”

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Raül Andero Galí, 35 years- Ramón y Cajal researcher at the Neurobiology of stress and addiction, Institut de Neurociències.

1.-Raul, can you tell us what kind of work you did at Harvard?

At Harvard I was a member of the teaching staff, a Psychiatry instructor and I also carried out translational studies with humans and rodents. We studied the molecular mechanisms of psychiatric disorders in mice and tried to apply the knowledge to cure these disorders in humans. One of the most important techniques that I learnt there is called optogenetics, which is the stimulation of neural groups with light. It is a very potent technique because with a very brief (milliseconds) stimulation of certain neurones we can enhance learning, inhibit the inflammatory system or cure a symptom of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson in animal models. This does not mean that it is strictly applicable to humans, but it does help us understand how the biological bases of some diseases work and how to advance in our studies to treat them.

2.-We see you study the neurobiology of fear; ¿Why is this subject of special interest to you?

In reality, I am interested in understanding the mechanisms of memory. Specifically, I focus on the memory of fear because it is the most conserved memory between rodents and people. The mechanisms of fear are very primary and can be easily measured in a rodent. These studies have a high translational component and can potentially be applied to humans. We have been doing these studies for years, I started as a postdoc researcher at Emory University, then as a professor at Harvard and now we hope to continue these studies here at the INc.

3.-Why have you decided to return to the INc?

First of all because the UAB is one of best universities in the country and the INc in particular is one of the best places to perform brain research. It is a multidisciplinary institute in areas such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson, inflammatory diseases and memory, and I believe that it is the ideal centre to carry out my translational programme.

4.-What is the focus of your investigation at the moment?

We are trying to continue the studies that I started while at Harvard: to find markers for psychiatric diseases like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) or Panic Disorder. We want to find biological markers in humans, for example in blood. We try to reverse the effects of these markers by using drugs in rodents to see how we can potentially cure the psychiatric disorders related to fear and pathological anxiety in humans. To do so, we use advanced techniques like optogenetics.

5.-How would you encourage future scientists to take part of Neuroscience research?

Neuroscience is an enthralling job, it is very creative, very competitive and it requires a lot of travelling. It is one the most exciting research fields of the 21st century, due to the great interest that society currently has for the brain and above all, because of the countless spectacular new techniques that are being developed that allow us to have precise control over the brain and that we believe will allow us to cure psychiatric disorders for the first time. This is not yet a reality, but we hope that it will be very soon.

Listen to the whole interview.

Amelia Kate Larkins

Interview with Dr Elisenda Sanz

“Neuroscience is one of the fields where one can expect the most significant advances to take place in the next few years”

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Dr Elisenda Sanz Iglesias, 37 years- Marie Sklodowska-Curie researcher Department of Cellular Biology, Physiology and Immunology Mitochondrial Neurohatology, Institut de Neurociències.

1.- How and why you ended up working as a neuroscientist?

After obtaining my Degree in Biology, it was clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career in Neuroscience. At that point, Dr. Mercè Unzeta from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology gave me the opportunity to join her group and obtain my PhD in the UAB’s Neuroscience program. This experience got me hooked on research and encouraged me to continue my training in this field (in which I already got the feeling that was going to be very stimulant)

2.-What research are you currently developing?

I’m currently developing novel tools for the cell type-specific isolation of mitochondria in complex tissues such as the brain. The brain contains multiple types and subtypes of cells, physically intermingled, which challenges the study of the cell-specific functions. In addition, mitochondria, which are known as the powerhouses of the cell, are cellular structures present in all cells. However, recent studies suggest that not all mitochondrial are equal, and that its composition and function is related to the cell type-specific environment. Our technology will provide the scientific community with a new tool that will allow the study of mitochondria at a level not currently attainable, and address the issue of cell type-specific mitochondrial heterogeneity.

3.-What are the major contributions in neuroscience in the past 20 years?

To me, one of the major contributions in Neuroscience in the last years has been the possibility to characterize and define, at an unprecedented level, all the different neuronal populations making up the brain. In the last years, a wide variety of tools
that allow for the dissection of neuronal complexity at all levels, from their transcriptional profile to its function and connectivity, have been developed. In my opinion, obtaining this level of resolution has been one of the major advances in Neuroscience in the last decade.

4.- Could you recommend us a research paper published during the last years?

I would suggest Ed Boyden and Karl Deisseroth’s paper where they describe for the first time the use of optogenetics to modulate neuronal activity (Boyden et al. (2005) Millisecond-timescale, genetically targeted optical control of neural activity. Nat Neurosci. 8(9):1263-8). Optogenetics have revolutionized the Neuroscience field. Therefore, this paper, along with the report describing the discovery process from the first author point of view (Boyden ES. A history of optogenetics: the development of tools for controlling brain circuits with light. F1000 Biol Rep. 2011; 3: 11), seem to me a quite stimulating read.

5.- How will you encourage future scientists to be part of Neuroscience research?

Neuroscience is one of the fields where one can expect the most significant advances to take place in the next few years due to the intense activity on the generation of novel tools and discovery technologies targeted to the nervous system that has taken and will take place during this decade. Neuroscience is a mystery in which there is still a lot to be discovered, and a significant part of this new knowledge, which has a direct impact on society, will be acquired in the next few years. It is not to be missed!

Interview with Dr Alfredo Miñano

“The more we know about our enigmatic brain, more new challenges appear in its complexity. More efforts are needed to find out why our central computer fails and to find a way to fix it.”

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Alfredo J. Miñano Molina, 36 years Postdoctoral Researcher Molecular and Cellular Basis of Neuronal Survival– Dr. José Rodríguez Álvarez.

1.- What research are you currently developing?

I am currently working in finding out which are the processes that are affected by the presence of beta-amyloid peptide at the synapses in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, resulting in their loss when neuronal death is still not occurring. The result of the progressive loss of synapses is the onset of cognitive deficits.

2.- How is the day-to-day inside your laboratory?

My day to day is pretty intense. The planning and organization of the group work in the laboratory is very important, so everyone who works in it can do it in the best conditions. One of my daily tasks is to ensure that the laboratory processes work perfectly. From there, you need to read to keep abreast of how science is going on in the world (as reading daily newspapers but at scientific level), consider this information and see how you can answer in the best way and with our resources issues that we are developing with our project. Here comes purely laboratory work: to plan experiments and carry them out. After that, analyzing the data and draw conclusions. Every week we have a day to share results with the rest of the group, to discuss the results and to see how we continue focusing our research. It is also very important to support students who are learning to move in a lab and those who are developing their thesis projects. It is key to having a reference nearby to help them learn to think and acquire their own criteria about the work they do every day and to be demanding with themselves. I try to help them with my experience to create solid foundations in their early formative stages as “scientifics.”

3.- What therapeutic applications do you think can your research have?

This is the fashionable research question, in this increasingly utilitarian world and how to respond it is what we are trying to learn in order to win points to get funds for our research. What we do should be useful to society (or any pharmaceutical company), and fast. Let’s see if you are convinced… We want to find out how are starting at synapses early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, because if we are able to do it we will know on what targets to act. We know that in these early processes there are altered molecules which are gaining importance in the recent years, that can give us clues about what is happening in the synapses long before the disease begins to manifest itself. These molecules can be analyzed using non-invasive methods for people. If we demonstrate the relationship between the alteration of one of these molecules and early-stages of the pathology, we will find a powerful therapeutic application with our work that could be useful to fight against the disease since the beginning.

4.- How you encourage future scientists to be part of neuroscience research?

The most important motivation is that biomedicine and neuroscience are the future. As time goes on, our life expectancy is higher. The more we know about our enigmatic brain, more new challenges appear in its complexity. More efforts are needed to find out why our central computer fails and to find a way to fix it. We can live a hundred years, but if you miss the computer that controls everything, what’s the use? I would encourage young people with talent, creativity and curiosity to know, to see in brain research the new challenges, and in neuroscience the way to develop their creativity to advance further in the knowledge of our brain. The question made by young people will be how to do it if this country is not committed to R & D? If there is enough motivation, dedication and desire we will succeed to convince people of this country about the importance of doing research. Doing outreach and education about what we do and why we do it, and if we get closer and people understand basic research as a leg of our society as they are health and education, then they will get pressured to change the research working in this country. If we think that many of these young people in ten or fifteen years will be leading research in the country, it is in their hands to fight for it.

Entrevista a la Dra Núria Daviu

“El dia a dia sempre és diferent”

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Núria Daviu Abant, 30 anys- Personal Docent i Investigador Post-doctoral.
Neurobiologia de l’estrès i de l’addicció, Institut de Neurociències

1.- Quina recerca concreta estàs desenvolupant actualment?

Actualment estem estudiant la transmissió intergeneracional dels efectes de l’estrès i de les drogues, a través de canvis epigenètics, en models en rata.

2.- Com és el teu dia a dia dins del laboratori?

El dia a dia en un laboratori, sobretot si treballes amb animals, pot arribar a ser molt variat. La planificació i la distribució de les hores de feina depèn molt de si en aquell moment tens un experiment en marxa. Quasi tota la feina experimental es fa al matí i a la tarda intentes organitzar-te el dia següent. Un cop acabada la feina experimental el dia a dia sempre és molt diferent. Cal analitzar totes les mostres i dades obtingudes durant l’experiment i llegir molt per estar al corrent de tot el que es publica sobre el teu tema d’interès.

3.- Quines aplicacions terapèutiques penses que pot arribar a tenir la teva recerca?

Bé, tot i que nosaltres treballem amb recerca bàsica crec que la nostra feina és necessària per poder avançar en el  coneixement del comportament i la psicopatologia humana. El fet d’identificar factors de risc relacionats amb la transmissió genètica en una patologia com és l’addició pot aportar informació molt útil per desenvolupar estratègies preventives o dianes terapèutiques a llarg termini.

4.- Com encoratjaries a futurs científics per formar part de la recerca en neurociències?

Jo encoratjaria a tothom que li agradés la neurociència a  que s’involucrés en un projecte científic durant els últims anys de Grau. Des de la meva experiència és una feina que t’agrada des del primer moment en que comences. Tens la oportunitat de treballar en un ambient on estàs constantment aprenent. És una feina que no arriba mai a ser monòtona ja que sempre has d’estar en constant canvi. En definitiva, el que en realitat em va decidir a triar aquesta feina va ser l’oportunitat de conèixer un mica com funciona el cervell  i la conducta humana.

 

1 minuto y medio: el Parkinson

¿Qué es la Enfermedad de Parkinson?

La enfermedad de Parkinson es una enfermedad neurodegenerativa progresiva caracterizada por la pérdida gradual de motilidad, enlentecimiento de movimientos, rigidez, temblor y trastornos posturales.

¿Qué ocurre en el cerebro de los pacientes con enfermedad de Parkinson?

Los pacientes sufren la desaparición de una pequeña población de unas neuronas específicas, denominadas neuronas dopaminérgicas, las cuales sintetizan dopamina, un neurotransmisor involucrado en importantes funciones motoras.

¿Es curable o tratable?

Desafortunadamente, la enfermedad de Parkinson no es curable, aunque los tratamientos farmacológicos son muy efectivos por largos periodos de tiempo. Para algunos pacientes, la intervención quirúrgica puede ser efectiva. Sin embargo, estos tratamientos solamente reducen los síntomas de forma temporal mientras el proceso degenerativo sigue progresando.

¿Es hereditario?

La forma más común de la enfermedad de Parkinson, no es trasmisible genéticamente. Sin embargo, existen algunas alteraciones genéticas raras en algunas familias que causan un síndrome parkinsoniano prácticamente idéntico.

¿Los pacientes mueren de la enfermedad de Parkinson?

La enfermedad de Parkinson no es mortal por si misma. Los pacientes con enfermedad de Parkinson mueren por complicaciones derivadas. En las fases más avanzadas de la enfermedad, los problemas respiratorios son una de las causas más frecuentes de fallecimiento, debido a la debilitación de los músculos torácicos.