Inside the ‘Neuroscience to Neurology’ conference

(Originally published by Edinburgh Student Newspaper, February 18, 2016)

On Saturday, February 6, the Edinburgh University Neurological Society (EUNS) hosted their fourth Neuroscience to Neurology National Conference. The EUNS conference aims to bring together experts and students in the specialties of neuroscience, neurology, and psychology.

The event proved to be the largest to date, attracting over 140 students from across the UK and providing students the opportunity to present their research. Leading experts in the fields of regenerative neurology, psychiatry, and the UK Biobank also delivered thought-provoking lectures, which explored both historical and existing advances in research. Afternoon workshops addressed diverse topics, ranging from neurotrauma and nerve conduction studies to careers advice and the neuroscience of recovery.

Overall, the conference emphasised how the integration of science, medicine, and psychology can help us to understand how our brain functions in both health and disease.

“The EUNS conference provides a unique platform for students to learn more about a career in neuroscience or neurology and present their research. I am very grateful to all the students, speakers, judges, sponsors and the EUNS for participating in the widest-ranging event to date!” said Anna Bryans EUNS Conference Coordinator.

Siddharthan Chandran:

Within regenerative medicine, arguably one of the biggest challenges is how to regenerate the vital three-pound lump inside our skulls. Degenerative neurological disorders affect one million people in the UK alone. These diseases are incurable and almost always fatal, yet there are no disease modifying treatments. Why is this?

Dr Siddharthan Chandran, Director of the Centre for Clinical Brain Science and Macdonald Professor of Neurology, discussed the fascinating research behind regenerating our brains.

To date, a large number of possible treatments for brain diseases cure the animal models of the disorder. Dr Chandran called upon our generation to figure out how these treatments can be translated to humans, highlighting his promising research with human stem cells.

Stem cells are a special kind of cell that can make more of itself (‘self-renewal’), and can make these cells specific to several different organs. This means stem cells could make unlimited numbers of a specific type of cell that might be needed for a therapy.

An important consideration in this research is that “neurons do not die in a cellular vacuum”, as Chandran says. In other words, there are other flavours of cells in the brain that influence the health of our neurons. Targeting these other cells might be a way to help our neurons heal.

A fairly new idea is that the brain can regenerate itself. For example, brain cells naturally regenerate using the fatty layers surrounding neurons called myelin. New myelin is laid down without any medicinal interference; this new layer protects neurons. If this happens, why is neurodegeneration still occurring? It is because this is not happening enough and fast enough to counter disease mechanisms. Another important question is why this happens more or less in certain individuals.

Dr Chandran described an interesting research study that exemplifies how human stem cells could be used in therapy. Steven Goldman at the University of Rochester conducted the research. He used a mouse model, which lacks myelin, and transplanted human stem myelin-producing cells. The mice with the transplant survived 270 days instead of the 160 days that the diseased mice had lived. The mice even showed functional recovery, meaning that the disease symptoms were decreased. Therefore, neurodegenerative diseases are a difficult problem, but stem cells may be one route to a cure.

Keith Matthews:

”I’ve often wanted a t-shirt with that: hide your children, psychiatrists are here”

Dr Keith Matthews

“I’ve often wanted a t-shirt with that: hide your children, psychiatrists are here”, joked Dr Keith Matthews, Head of Neuroscience at the University of Dundee School of Medicine, as he flashed up a picture of a protestor wearing that exact shirt.

But what is there to protest about psychiatry? And why would protests be a regular feature of annual meetings of the Royal College of Psychiatrists? This could all be based on misinformation, which Dr Matthews’s important presentation set straight.

Psychiatry is perhaps a misunderstood science; already the division between neurology and psychiatry in studying the brain is misleading. When most organs have one dedicated medical specialty, why does the brain have this division into two? This divide between disciplines is nomenclature. There are well-established structural and functional brain abnormalities that underlie psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Although psychiatric disorders rank among the top disorders in the world in terms of disease burden, funding is low. While for every pound that the UK government spends on cancer, the public raises £2.75, for mental heath resesarch, the public raises only 30p for every pound the government spends.

Unlike the public portrayal of psychiatry would suggest, the field embraced evidence-based medicine earlier than some other specialties. Today, psychiatry knows a lot about what works and does not work, with studies of the kind that are considered a gold standard.

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Neurosurgery has come a long way from its troubling history. Since the infamous lobotomies of the mid-20th century, the world is now seeing a new wave of psychiatric neurosurgery, with countries around the world providing treatment and increasing evidence of its efficacy.

A specific branch of neurosurgery –  called ablative brain surgery – creates a specific area of damage in the brain. Dr Matthews’s work has shown that where surgeons place the centre of the lesion, or the area they damage, influences the patients’ clinical outcomes. The surgery that Matthews and his team studied is for major depressive disorder. Patients have shown substantial improvement in neuropsychological function, and of 50 patients treated, there have been no deaths and only a few cases of side effects.

Cathie Sudlow:

“I’m going to tell you about the most exciting population-based study that is going on anywhere in the world”

Dr Cathie Sudlow

“I’m going to tell you about the most exciting population-based study that is going on anywhere in the world”, Dr Cathie Sudlow said, grabbing the audience’s attention. The study to which Dr Sudlow is referring to is UK Biobank. It is a large, prospective, population-based study.

At first, it seems that there is nothing novel in this concept – there have been other such studies done over many years. However, UK Biobank far exceeds them in scale, including half a million UK residents.

Participants were healthy, aged between 40 and 69, and lived all over the UK. Information was gathered about background, lifestyle, and typical parameters such as blood pressure, height and weight. Importantly, the experimentors also took blood, urine and saliva samples.

The plan is that this sample group can be tracked through life in case they develop diseases. It will then be possible to compare disease outcomes to the baseline measures: “That kind of prospective study design is very attractive and far less prone to the biases and problems that you get from retrospective studies”, explained Sudlow.

Perhaps the most exciting part is that the data collected is available for everyone to use. Sudlow said that they do not have a high bar for scientists who want to use the data. Accessing the samples is more highly controlled, because these are limited, so they want to ensure that the projects using them are worthwhile.

The goal is for researchers to use UK Biobank to test their various hypotheses, and study a range of diseases. Hopefully, this will lead to discoveries that improve prevention and treatment of diseases occurring in mid-to-late life.

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