Psychology and Neuroscience
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that affects tens of millions of people globally. Although we can modestly improve the quality of life of patients, there is currently no cure, largely because the underlying biological mechanisms of the disease are poorly defined. Understanding the abnormal molecular characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease is the focus of Dr. Erin Norris’s research at The Rockefeller University. By studying the dysfunction of the plasma contact system, which may result in abnormal coagulation and inflammation that may lead to Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Norris and her colleagues have uncovered novel biomarkers, paving the way for exciting new therapeutics.
Dr Vanessa van Ast from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands is driving forward understanding of how and why our emotional memories change over time. As well as elucidating how our memories of specific events and emotions influence behaviour, her most recent work is unveiling the impact that different contexts may have on the storage and recall of memories.
Dr Teresa Silva at Mid Sweden University has turned her focus from investigating individual risk factors towards understanding how society is contributing to behavioural problems and mental health issues. She is currently undertaking research in a number of critical areas including child protection and domestic abuse against males. This work is providing vital evidence to support the development of interventions and policies that are more effective.
Dr Y. Peng Loh – Discovery of Neurotrophic Factor-α1 Reveals New Treatment Strategies for Stress-induced Neurodegenerative Diseases and Depression
Stress produces numerous negative effects on the human body. Lying deep within the brain, one particularly sensitive area is the hippocampus, where chronic exposure to stress hormones can lead to the degeneration and death of neurons. Thankfully, the brain holds defence mechanisms that block some of these negative effects. Deciphering these mechanisms with the aim of better treating neurodegenerative diseases and depression is Dr Y. Peng Loh from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the USA.
The human brain is wonderfully complex. Billions of neuron cells connect in unique ways to create networks that determine each individual’s brain function and consequent behaviour. Given the expanse and complexity of these networks, it is not surprising that they are not yet fully mapped out or understood. Bringing innovative new and exciting ideas to this field of neurobiology is Dr Martin Schwarz from the Institute for Experimental Epileptology and Cognition Research and the Life & Brain Center at the University of Bonn Medical Center in Germany.
There are many situations where large volumes of data are collected over time, and processes can be greatly improved by gleaning insights from that data. For example, hospitals and healthcare authorities collect data on patient outcomes following treatment or surgery. By better analysing such data, patterns can be revealed and process changes can be implemented to improve patient outcomes. Professor Stefan Steiner and his colleagues at the University of Waterloo develop new models and statistical methods that can obtain such insights across a wide array of sectors, from improving healthcare to reducing road accidents.
Our DNA codes for proteins that are essential for the normal structure and function of our cells, tissues and organs. These proteins are folded in specific ways to facilitate these functions, but in disease states, this folding can go wrong. Dr. David Westaway from the University of Alberta in Canada investigates how and why protein misfolding occurs and how strains of misfolded proteins result in neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. His research is paving the way for novel therapies for these currently incurable and devasting conditions.
Stroke can impair a person’s ability to communicate, resulting in a disorder known as aphasia. To facilitate recovery, scientists must understand how language is processed normally as well as how a stroke may impact the language system in the brain. Dr Cynthia K. Thompson, Ralph and Jean Sundin Professor of Communication Science and Professor of Neurology at Northwestern University, has been researching normal and disordered language for over thirty years. Her focus is on understanding and supporting the recovery of language processes when the brain has been damaged.
Dr. Robert Trestman, at the Carilion Clinic and Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, has co-developed START NOW, a successful group psychotherapy intervention specifically targeting mental health issues in prisoners. It combines elements of cognitive behavioral therapy to form skills-based learning. Furthermore, START NOW is easily accessible, cost-effective, and designed for use in settings with limited resources. Due to its success within correctional institutions, START NOW is being adapted for use in fields such as adolescent conduct issues and opioid misuse.
Glioblastoma multiforme is an aggressive and life-threatening form of brain cancer. Although some treatments are available to provide comfort and prolong life, it remains an incurable and devastating disease. With the goal of advancing diagnostics and treatments for glioblastoma, Dr Hernando Lopez-Bertoni is carrying out exciting research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Taking on board the cancer stem cell hypothesis, Dr Lopez-Bertoni has made fascinating discoveries into how miRNA genetic material can be utilised and how it could be delivered to the brain via nanoparticles.
Dr Lakshmi Mahadevan – Mental Health First Aid: Bridging the Gap between Rural Communities and Access to Care
In the USA, poor mental health and opioid addiction are prominent and widespread. With a lack of understanding and resources in many rural areas in Texas, many people facing mental health and addiction challenges do not know where to turn. Dr Lakshmi Mahadevan at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service is helping to train up rural communities in Mental Health First Aid (MFHA) so that they can provide better care for those in need.
Dr Francesca Lawson from Brigham Young University has spent the last few decades researching the relationship between music and language. She has looked beyond Western culture and conducted many studies in the People’s Republic of China, focusing on music- and speech-based performance. Dr Lawson’s most recent work demonstrates how musicality is important in underpinning our communication, highlighting that when attitudes align, speech becomes rhythmically and musically coordinated.
An abundance of evidence converges to suggest that humans are not the only species to create culture. Field and laboratory studies in animals have demonstrated that social learning and the transmission of the traditions that make up a culture can be found across many different species including primates, birds, fish and even insects, and in many different contexts. Professor Andrew Whiten at the University of St Andrews and his extensive network of collaborators are pioneering conceptual and methodological frameworks to promote the conservation and welfare of animals from a scientifically rigorous perspective.
Dr Robyn S. Klein – Regulation and Loss of Neuroprotection in Viral and Autoimmune Diseases of the Central Nervous System
Viral and autoimmune diseases of the central nervous system (CNS) are often characterised by the onset of inflammation leading to neurological dysfunction, including impairment to memory and other cognitive domains. Dr Robyn S. Klein at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, leads a team that specialises in neuroinflammatory diseases of the CNS. In recent years, they have investigated the regulation of blood-brain barrier permeability in autoimmune diseases and viral infections with pathogens such as the West Nile virus.
Dr Simon Graham – Making Magnetic Resonance Imaging Examinations Safer for Patients with Deep Brain Stimulation Implants
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is an increasingly popular treatment for abnormal brain circuits found in epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examinations are part of the medical workup to implant DBS devices correctly, and can be used after the procedure to assess potential complications, provide long-term follow-up or evaluate new disease. At present, however, MRI of patients with DBS implants may introduce a significant risk of heating brain tissue. Dr Simon Graham, at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto, investigates how MRI can be optimised to keep DBS patients safe.
While alcohol is often consumed to help us relieve stress and relax, excessive consumption can negatively impact the way that our brains process and cope with stress, leading to further difficulties. Dr Lara Hwa from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University is investigating the link between external stressors and stress signalling in the brain to understand how these processes govern excessive drinking.
Dr Susanne M. Jaeggi, Dr Anja Pahor and Dr Aaron R. Seitz – Moving Beyond ‘One-size-fits-all’ Brain Training Solutions
Brain training allows us to improve our cognition in the same way that gym workouts improve our physical health. The ultimate goal is transferable learning, which improves performance in real-world activities beyond the original training tasks. Dr Susanne M. Jaeggi, Dr Anja Pahor and Dr Aaron R. Seitz from the University of California Irvine and Riverside, are collectively driving forward exciting advances in brain training, as well as addressing the controversy surrounding its effectiveness and limitations. Above all, they aim to understand the key ingredients for creating successful interventions.
Dr Natalia Sira – A Holistic Approach to Health Necessitates a Deeper Understanding of Human Development
Connecting body and mind through the consideration of both the physical and psychological components of health helps determine our reactions and developmental behaviour. Furthermore, the ways in which we achieve our optimal developmental potential manage how well we can adapt and cope with changes in our environment, deal with stresses in life and maintain overall well-being. Dr Natalia Sira from East Carolina University is improving patient care by taking a holistic and individualised approach to health outcomes, treatment and rehabilitation, focusing on the role of family relationships, developmental needs and spirituality as important components of coping mechanisms.
Environmental factors and genetics both play a part in how our brains function, whether that be in a healthy or disordered manner. Understanding the processes by which mental health disorders arise is an important step in developing effective therapies. Dr Jyoti Mishra founded NEATLabs at the University of California, San Diego, to work towards this goal. Her exciting research is advancing cognitive brain mapping to investigate brain functions as well as novel digital therapeutics that are personalised to individual needs.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a prevalent psychiatric condition, significantly impacting the lives of millions of people globally. Sadly, symptoms often persist despite treatment. A better understanding of the brain abnormalities involved in PTSD is crucial to improving therapy development. Dr Israel Liberzon and his colleagues at the Texas A&M Health Sciences Centre have been working to uncover the dysfunctional neural networks that contribute to PTSD symptoms to inform the development of more effective interventions.
Neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) are a complex group of diseases that profoundly impact the human population, emerging during brain development but often affecting individuals throughout their lives. Human models of NDDs are needed, as many aspects of both the human genome sequence and brain development are human-specific and not recapitulated in animal models. Dr Kristen Kroll, in the Department of Developmental Biology at Washington University School of Medicine, has spent her career modelling neural development and identifying how its disruption can contribute to NDDs.
Decades of research indicate that mental health conditions and psychiatric disorders have a strong genetic basis. Expanding our understanding of mental health by encompassing a more systemic approach may help us improve both diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Chunyu Liu and his team from SUNY Upstate Medical University are using big data to discover the genetic and molecular changes in the brain that occur with different psychiatric disorders. His studies are helping us understand the diversity of human behaviour and develop new methods to treat mental health conditions.
Attention disorders range from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to multitasking difficulties due to aging. Regardless of the cause, such difficulties can have a negative impact on peoples’ lives. Dr Adam Gazzaley from the University of California San Francisco has carried out extensive research exploring how customized technology can be utilized to strengthen attention capabilities in individuals across the lifespan. His work has driven him to develop innovative technology companies and software as well as educate us on the benefits of experimental medicine.
Professor Mary Rezk-Hanna – Hookah (i.e., Waterpipe) Smoking: Understanding User Perceptions and Health Risks
Hookah smoking is the least regulated tobacco form. It is rapidly gaining in popularity to the extent that we are now facing a contemporary epidemic of tobacco abuse. Of particular concern is the level of usage among youth and young adults. Professor Mary Rezk-Hanna from the University of California, Los Angeles works with a group of scientists who aim to drive policy regulation of tobacco and alternative tobacco products, including hookah smoking, by investigating their health effects on the cardiovascular system.
Neurodevelopmental disorders range from those on the relatively common autism spectrum to much rarer disorders such as KDM5C-disorder and Weidemann-Steiner Syndrome. Exciting advancements in human genetics have shown that histones – the proteins our DNA wraps around – play a vital role in healthy brain development. Dr Shigeki Iwase from the University of Michigan studies how mutations in the enzymes that regulate histone structure and function can cause cognitive disorders. His work has led to important new discoveries, including how counterpart enzymes can be utilised for therapies.
Exposure to childhood trauma increases the risk of developing mental health issues in adulthood. However, the processes through which this occurs are currently unknown. Using magnetic resonance imaging, laboratory-based measurements of fear, and the assessment of clinical symptomatology, Dr Tanja Jovanovic from Wayne State University is investigating the effect that trauma has on brain development. She hopes her findings will help identify those children at risk of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder so that preventative measures can be put in place to ensure brighter futures for children in their adulthood years.
Dr Jessica Galgano – Exploring the Neural Mechanisms of Speech and Language to Inform Clinical Practice
The neural mechanisms behind speech and voice production are intricate but not yet fully characterised. For speech and vocal disordered populations, understanding the central mechanisms behind speech and sound production is essential to improve treatment options and rehabilitation techniques. Taking a scientist-practitioner approach, Dr Jessica Galgano, of New York University Grossman School of Medicine and founder of Open Lines Speech and Communication, is researching the underpinnings of speech and the clinical efficacy of current treatments for voice, speech, and language disorders.
Founded in 1992, Alzheimer’s Research UK is the UK’s leading dementia research charity. Their work is dedicated to furthering our understanding of the causes, diagnosis, prevention, treatment and cure of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Characterised by declines in memory and other cognitive functions such as thinking and reasoning, these progressively worsening neurodegenerative and ultimately fatal diseases sadly remain without a cure. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Ian Wilson, Deputy Chief Executive, to hear about the vital work conducted by Alzheimer’s Research UK.
Professor Tara Perrot and her team at Dalhousie University, Canada, are working to better understand how early development – including the experiences of parents before their offspring are even born – may influence the stress reactions and resilience of their offspring later in life. This research involves not only looking at the brain and hormones but also the gut, and holds important implications for understanding human stress reactivity in the current day.
Severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) is associated with high rates of disability and even mortality. Understanding the relationship between patient outcomes and the treatment received, as well as other physiological factors such as inflammation, can improve how we approach TBI. Dr Jack Jallo and his team from the Department of Neurological Surgery at Thomas Jefferson University are researching the factors that influence TBI recovery to help design better care management protocols and optimise patient recovery.
Dr Charles Vite – Naturally Occurring Diseases in Dogs and Cats Help to Develop Treatments for Inherited Neurological Disorders
Many inherited neurological diseases are rare but can have severe outcomes, frequently resulting in disability and even death for children. New treatment options are essential to prevent suffering and decrease mortality, but to find such treatments, these diseases need to be more closely studied. Dr Charles Vite and his team at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, are committed to achieving these goals. By utilising animal models and unique markers for inherited neurological disease, they have already delivered promising results supporting the development of new treatment options.
Epilepsy is one of the most common causes of disability worldwide, but for many patients, treatment fails to be effective. Dr Victoria Morgan and her team from the Department of Radiology and Radiological Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center are using functional connectivity mapping to find out why some patients respond better to treatment and what alternative ways there may be to tackle this debilitating disorder.