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Neuroscience: The Brain’s Allure

What is Neuroscience?

Neuroscience—one of the most diverse, interdisciplinary branches of biology—is the study of the brain, spinal cord and billions of specialized nerve cells, called neurons, that transmit the electrical impulses necessary to think, feel, and move. This growing field of research combines chemical, biological, imaging, and genetic approaches to study brain development, behavior, and cognition. Neuroscientists often focus their research efforts on brain abnormalities or diseases in order to find potential treatments, but also as a way to find out how brains normally function.

Micheline Pelletier for L’Oréal Corporate Foundation
Christine Van Broeckhoven (center) and her lab members

Christine Van Broeckhoven intended to study the molecular genetics of metabolic diseases—until the Belgian scientist toured the brain collection of the Institute Born-Bunge at the University of Antwerp in 1983. She was so impressed that hundreds of people had donated their most sacred and complex organ to scientific exploration that she decided to use her training to search for the genes responsible for neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia.

Since then, Christine’s research has identified genes and proteins that sabotage brain cells and lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She now leads the department of molecular genetics within the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), a nonprofit research institute housed across four Flemish universities.

Christine’s experience is just one example of how the brain’s marvelous complexity brings together the variety of scientific backgrounds necessary to unlock its mysteries. Geneticists, molecular biologists, even electrical engineers, are among those who have helped shed light on how the brain works—often by searching for the causes of its malfunction. “Researchers are drawn to the brain because, at its essence, neuroscience is about studying what makes us human,” says Christine.

The human element ultimately lured Sridevi Sarma to neuroscience. As a Ph.D. student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sridevi could have used her engineering background to design passenger airplanes, but they ultimately weren’t complex enough for her. So she took classes to explore her growing interest in neuroscience and conducted a case study of her aunt, who was diagnosed with a rare case of early onset Parkinson’s disease. That experience helped convince Sridevi to use her training in mathematical modeling to study the most complex system possible—the brain.

Sridevi Sarma

Once she completed her Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Sridevi pursued a postdoctoral appointment in computational neuroscience where she learned to model the activity of neuron clusters. Today she is a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Computational Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. There, she develops software that helps doctors implant electrodes deep inside the brain more accurately and effectively. The electrodes deliver an electric current which stimulates nearby neurons and alters how they communicate information—and they ultimately help patients with conditions like Parkinson’s disease to control their movements.

Ripe for Discovery

Neuroscience is on the cusp of big breakthroughs that will help unlock the brain’s mysteries and deliver therapies to patients. New technologies are allowing researchers to glimpse the brain’s inner workings. For example, new imaging capabilities, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), allow researchers to monitor which specific cells are active inside the brain while a task is being performed. At the same time, advances in genetics enable researchers to pinpoint the genes and proteins that will lead to new drug targets for neurodegenerative disorders.

“The reality is that we live in a technology savvy world where we can now probe the brain in three dimensions, identify every structure down to the micron, and record electrical activity from single neurons in every different part of the brain,” says Sridevi. But while technology provides the tools, she says creativity is needed to find the answers. “What’s lacking is the ability to put all these pieces of the puzzle together,” she adds.

Finding treatments for brain disorders drives many research efforts, but neuroscience has endless career opportunities—in part, because the brain is a dynamic organ that is always evolving. Researchers are just beginning to tease apart the biological and environmental forces shaping the brain. “The brain we have at the end of our lives is not the same as the one we are born with,” says Christine.

With so much yet to be learned, researchers can easily leave their mark in the field. “We are all pioneers because everything is still so new,” says Christine.

The intellectual pursuits are exciting enough, but these researchers want to see their findings change the lives of patients. For example, Christine’s research uncovers the potential targets for drug development, but it is Agnieszka Sadowska’s work in industry that will ultimately turn those targets into therapies.

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Agnieszka Sadowska

Agnieszka wanted her research to have a direct impact on treating disease, so she pursued a career at Janssen Pharmaceutica in Beerse, Belgium, a company exclusively devoted to developing treatments for mental disorders. There, she works with academics to determine how the accumulation of a protein, known as TAU, disrupts the ability of neurons to form synapses, the nerve junctions needed to store memories and learn. She hopes that studying TAU will lead to the development of a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. “I’m lucky because I’m doing discovery-based science that has a direct application to treating disease,” she says.

A Needed Boost

For Mayana Zatz, director of the Human Genome Research Center at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, the next therapeutic frontier involves the use of stem cells to treat neuromuscular disorders. From adipose tissue to umbilical cord to fallopian tubes, Mayana is exploring new sources of stem cells that would bypass the controversial use of embryos.

Mayana credits the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award with giving her the visibility to communicate the importance of stem cell research to the public. As a result, she played a major role in convincing the Brazilian government to authorize research with embryonic stem cells, which became legal in 2008.

Mayana has spent over 25 years teasing apart the molecular genetics of neuromuscular diseases. As a result, she has worked with thousands of affected families and pioneered the molecular techniques necessary to, so far, identify six genes responsible for neuromuscular diseases. For Mayana, curiosity is a “disease” for which conducting research is the only cure. “If you have a passion for research, you can anticipate having an extremely interesting life!” she says.

Micheline Pelletier for L’Oréal Corporate Foundation
Mayana Zatz

Passion may be a prerequisite, but it sometimes must be stoked to stay alive. In a field as intense and competitive as neuroscience, the UNESCO-L’Oreal Fellowship provides the recognition necessary to keep careers thriving. For Sridevi and Agnieszka, the fellowship came at a time when they needed something to bolster their resolve for this career path.

Sridevi hit a low point in her career when, torn by the demands of raising young children and conducting ambitious research, she almost wanted to give up. “Finding out that I won the L’Oreal fellowship couldn’t have come at a better time. I needed to know that my work mattered,” she says. She used the money to build a strong collaboration with a clinical neuroscientist at a nearby hospital, which provides her with access to data from human patients.

For Agnieszka, the fellowship enabled her to join Carlos Dotti’s lab at VIB, and pursue her interests in conducting stem cell research. “If I hadn’t gotten the fellowship, and therefore not had the chance to join Dotti’s lab, I do not know if I would have continued in science,” she says.

Pairing Passion With Compassion

The award helped these women get their careers established. For Christine, whose research has been recognized around the world, L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards are special for two reasons: they honor womens’ achievements in often male-dominated fields and they encourage women scientists to embrace, rather than eschew, their femininity. As godmother of the Flemish Alzheimer’s Association, she is grateful that the award allows women to celebrate both the compassion for patients that draws them to this field as well as their passion for research.

As these award laureates and fellowship winners prove, a neuroscientist’s reach extends beyond the laboratory. While they are all driven to find and deliver new therapies, they have also had an impact on society through the variety of ways they’ve found to work with patients.

Mayana founded the Brazilian Association of Muscular Dystrophy, the first center of its type in Latin America, to offer physical therapy and psychological support to those with muscular dystrophy and their families. Today the center offers care to 300 patients.

Working with patients, Christine says, motivates her to keep finding ways to improve their quality of life. But she never forgets how important it is to honor the patients who have donated their brains to research. She says it was those donations that allowed her to begin identifying the genetic underpinnings of dementia. “Once dementia was recognized as a disease, and not part of the aging process, there was an investment in research that helped give patients and families hope for the future,” says Christine.