Entrevista a la Dra. Olga Peñagarikano

“Ya nos hemos olvidado de la idea de encontrar qué es el autismo como una única cosa”

La Dra. Olga Peñagarikano, del Departamento de Farmacología de la Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, investiga sobre el trastorno del espectro autista. El viernes pasado vino a dar un seminario en el Instituto y aprovechamos para hacerle algunas preguntas sobre esta enfermedad: dónde estamos y hacia dónde vamos.

  1. La palabra autismo es un saco muy grande donde entran casos muy distintos. ¿Qué tienen en común todas las personas que se diagnostican de autismo?

El autismo es un desorden del comportamiento. Engloba muchos casos distintos pero hay dos criterios que se tienen que cumplir: uno es una deficiencia en el comportamiento social y el otro, la presencia de comportamientos repetitivos e intereses restringidos. Muchas veces estas personas también tienen otras alteraciones: hiperactividad, déficit de atención, epilepsia, etc., pero esto depende de cada caso.

  1. ¿Qué hace que sea una patología y no una diversidad?

Son las dos cosas, yo creo. El comportamiento humano tiene todo un abanico de posibilidades, y el autismo está en un extremo de este rango. Lo consideramos patología cuando la persona no puede llevar una vida normal. En cambio, si te defiendes en el día a día, puedes tener una mayor o menor capacidad de interacción social pero no será considerado una patología.

  1. ÂżPuede haber subjetividad cultural en el diagnĂłstico?

Hasta hace poco, el diagnóstico era muy arbitrario y dependía principalmente de la opinión relativamente subjetiva del especialista clínico, pero ahora se han estandarizado los métodos para unificar los criterios. Hay cuestionarios para el comportamiento social y cuestionarios para el comportamiento repetitivo que se utilizan, en principio, por todo el mundo.

  1. ¿Qué pasa en los cerebros de las personas con autismo?

Esto es lo que tenemos que descubrir. Hoy en dĂ­a todavĂ­a no se sabe. Hemos visto distintas alteraciones, pero nada que sea comĂşn para todas estas personas. Seguramente lo que encontremos sean subgrupos de pacientes a los que les fallen cosas diferentes.

  1. ¿Y estas alteraciones son en alguna área del cerebro concreta?

Hay varias áreas que pueden estar afectadas: la corteza prefrontal, el circuito cortico-estriado, la amĂ­gdala, el cerebelo… No hay una estructura determinada.

  1. Ha habido mucho debate sobre la causa de esta enfermedad: problemas durante el embarazo, genética… ¿Tú qué piensas?

Hoy en día se ha demostrado que es principalmente genética, pero también hay un gran factor ambiental. La persona tiene una predisposición pero necesita que suceda algo durante el embarazo o la etapa perinatal para desarrollarla.

  1. ¿Qué pasa con los gemelos?

Justamente en estudios con gemelos fue donde se demostró el componente genético. En gemelos monocigóticos, hay hasta un 90% de concordancia.

Sin embargo, hay dos tipos de autismo: el autismo del que no conocemos su etiología y el autismo sindrómico (asociado a otros síndromes del neurodesarrollo con causa genética conocida). Dependiendo del origen, encontraremos más o menos carga genética.

  1. Hay algunas personas con autismo que tienen capacidades extraordinarias. ¿Por qué?

SĂ­, muchos de los grandes genios eran autistas, pero no se sabe por quĂ© pueden tener estas capacidades… Y es algo que merecerĂ­a la pena estudiar, porque estudiando a personas que son maravillosas en ciertos aspectos, seguramente tendrĂ­amos informaciĂłn de por quĂ© luego otras tienen problemas en estas mismas cosas. Lo que pasa es que hay prioridades a la hora de estudiar y, generalmente, estudiamos lo que falla, porque es más urgente. La hipĂłtesis que se baraja es que en el autismo hay diversas áreas neuronales que se ven afectadas y, en compensaciĂłn, hay otras que se ven aumentadas.

  1. Hoy en día hay muchas más personas diagnosticadas de autismo que años atrás. ¿Es debido a que han mejorado las técnicas para el diagnóstico o realmente ha aumentado el número de casos?

Yo creo que, principalmente, han mejorado las técnicas para el diagnóstico, pero puede ser que el ambiente haya hecho que aumente el número de casos: cada vez hay más polución, más estrés…

  1. ÂżY la edad de los padres?

Sí, parece ser que también afecta. La edad principalmente del padre, más que de la madre.

  1. ¿Cuál es el tratamiento que se utiliza para tratar el autismo?

Desgraciadamente no hay ningún tratamiento que sea específico para el autismo. Se suele tratar con antipsicóticos, pero básicamente porque mejoran los otros síntomas que la mayoría de las veces se asocian a la enfermedad: hiperactividad, agresividad, etc.

  1. ¿Cuál será el futuro?

Como te comentaba antes, ya nos hemos olvidado de la idea de encontrar qué es el autismo como una única cosa. Esperamos poder definir esos diferentes subgrupos de pacientes con una patología común, y tener, para cada uno de ellos, un tratamiento específico. Yo confío en que cada vez estamos más cerca.

  1. Tú estás investigando un posible tratamiento con oxitocina…

Sí. La oxitocina es una hormona que todo el mundo conoce porque está involucrada en el sistema reproductor, en el parto, etc., pero que en el cerebro también se encarga de regular el comportamiento social y el vínculo entre las personas. Yo trabajo con un modelo animal de autismo y vimos que, al administrar oxitocina, su comportamiento social mejoraba. Esto nos hizo pensar que el sistema de la oxitocina podría ser uno de los mecanismos comunes que están alterados este trastorno (por lo menos en algunos de los subgrupos de pacientes), y que aumentar los niveles de esta hormona en el cerebro podría ser una opción.

  1. ¿Cuál de los artículos que has publicado a lo largo de tu carrera salvarías de un incendio?

Un artículo que publicamos en Cell en el que caracterizamos este modelo animal de autismo con el que trabajo. Fue un boom porque fue uno de los primeros modelos animales de autismo que se validaba. De hecho, nos dieron un premio por estar dentro del top 10 en investigación de autismo en el año que se publicó, el 2011. Esto creo que ha sido lo que ha definido mi carrera y ha permitido que ahora me pueda dedicar a esto.

Roser Bastida Barau

Interview with Dr Gonzalo de Polavieja

“Very bad things can occur as a result from the interaction; like everybody thinking alike, but it can also be something fantastic because we are able to have more knowledge together than if we are isolated.”

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Last 25th of November Dr Gonzalo de Polavieja, from Champalimaud Foundation (Portugal), came to our Institute to give a seminar about social behaviour. We got the opportunity to talk to him about social media, being influenced, Google, the future…

  1. If we have to choose between having dinner in a full restaurant or in an empty one, why do we always choose the one crowded with people?

If we do not have any other information we will assume that people who have already chosen, did so for some reason. If a restaurant is crowded, it probably means that it is a good one. You may be wrong, but you just assume the others have more information than you.

  1. Is the opinion of the group, the sum of each individual view?

I don’t think it is the sum. It is a more complicated mathematical process. In fact, my research program aims to discover what mathematical formula could describe it better.

  1. There are people more easily influenced than others. Why?

It depends on many variables. For example, having less information than the average will make you more vulnerable to be influenced or manipulated. But also your position in a hierarchy, or those factors which your salary depend on, etc.

  1. Is being susceptible to others’ views of any use for evolution?

I think so. The information available for each individual is very limited, so it is useful taking into account other peoples’ information to find better general solutions.

  1. On Twitter, for example, you can always be aware of others’ opinions. Do you think this can homogenize society view?

I am afraid yes. We run experiments using YouTube in which we manipulated the comments of a particular video. Thus, the manipulation of the comments makes people shift their own opinion about the video (if they like it or not). People tend to follow the taste of the majority. We use similar mechanisms either to decide if something is true or false, and if something is considered good or bad. So I am afraid it happens…

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  1. What do you think about Bruce Scheiner’s quote about Facebook: “you are not the customer, you are the product?

There are many companies that use their own sites to gather information about how we function. Companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter or Amazon… part of the business is to understand patterns of human behavior and use those data to make a profit out of this information. The main income of Google’s business is not the providing a machine for searching but learning what do we like or dislike and use that information.

  1. Do they only just use it? Don’t they manipulate it?

It is hard to know. They do not need to manipulate anything to get lots of information with high economical value. There is some controversy about how much manipulation these companies can exert. In fact, it is hard to decide whether something is a manipulation or not. Sometimes, without intentionality, just using some mathematical algorithms the information can be biased or manipulated. For example there is a lot of discussion on whether the posting of certain news in Facebook favored Trump’s election because the algorithm they use gives more relevance to highly-voted news, therefore the most surprising pieces of information can be more spread. Is this manipulation? It depends on the intentions of the people who made the algorithm but I would not say so, simply the news are treated in certain ways that ultimately generate biases.

  1. Do we think what some companies with business interests want us to think?

I would not write it like this. I do not think that there is a man sitting in front of a table and thinking: “I will make everybody think as I want”. However, I feel that something similar exists. In how you manage the data you have or the way you present your products you are taking into account the nature of human beings and their weaknesses. It is not need to believe that is something evil or obscure but simply that economic profit uses patterns of human behavior. This has been happening since the beginning of time but now we have huge amounts of data and what we know about human behavior is massive and the quality of this knowledge is very high. Your cell phone will tell you better than yourself what movies you may like, what research publications will interest you…

  1. How could democracy be protected from this bias?

I do not know. There is something inherent in knowledge: it depends on human interaction. Nobody knows everything. We need to interact and this interaction can lead you to areas of manipulation. It is very difficult having a pure and clean interaction. Very bad things can occur as a result from the interaction; like everybody thinking alike, but it can also be something fantastic because we are able to have more knowledge together than if we are isolated.

Could people be educated and not being affected by others’ influence?

Other’s influence is not something bad. How do you know that the Earth orbits around the sun? Because somebody told you, not because you discovered it. But the point is to have critical thinking and question the source where the information comes from. This is key for the discrimination of the evidences and information. Most of the times there is poor evidence and then the distinction between information and manipulation are not clear.

  1. How do you imagine the world in 2500?

I would say it will be governed by artificial intelligence, not by humans. Artificial intelligence will be so superior to humans’ and I do not know how people will function and if we will be able to control it. Maybe we will be for robots like dogs are currently for us. They will be more creative and we will like it. They will create very well designed objects that will make us feel with the maximum intensity.

  1. What are you working on at the moment?

We are working on different things. On one hand, we are unraveling the rules behind the interactions between humans or animals that lead to make specific decisions or affect learning. On the other hand, we are also developing and using artificial intelligence, because sometimes machines do research better than us. I joke with my students, “as soon as you finish developing these technology I will fire you”. We use virtual reality too to manipulate social interactions between humans and we also study the influence of internet… In general what we do is to study social interactions from different perspectives through mathematics.

  1. You studied basic science at the university but now you are focused on behavior… did you change your career because there were more people in the neuroscience café than in the chemistry one, and you thought there might be a reason?

Studying behavior is also a basic science. Not as tough as physics or chemistry but you can also apply mathematics to it.

Why behavior? Because, among other reasons, problems in biology can generally be solved in the short term, a matter of months, whereas in physics is difficult to make predictions at that time scale. And first and above all, because I find it so interesting…

Roser Bastida Barau

 

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

Entrevista a la Dra NĂşria Daviu

“El dia a dia sempre Ă©s diferent”

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NĂşria 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 estĂ s 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 Ă©s 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.