By Ekaterina Dobryakova
Tianzi Jiang is a Director of the Brainnetome at the Institute of Automation the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China and a Professor of Neuroimaging and Brainnetome at the Queensland Brain institute of University of Queensland, Australia. The Brainnetome Center attempts to take into consideration the social and environmental effects on the brain of individuals with psychiatric and neurological disorders while examining structural and functional brain characteristics in a multimodal fashion. The Brainnetome atlas, one of the major projects of the Brainnetome Center, currently contains 246 brain regions and allows examination of anatomical connectivity-based parcellation of various brain area.
Here we briefly found out about Professor Jiang’s background and his diverse interests centered on the Brainnetome.
Ekaterina Dobryakova (ED): What motivated you to start a career in brain mapping?
Tianzi Jiang (TJ): All of my degrees were in mathematics. After my PhD, I started my postdoctoral training in computer vision and image processing. I was and remain very interested in how we can use mathematics to understand the brain’s organization. It motivated me to start my career in brain mapping twenty years ago, when I worked at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.
ED: You are involved in diverse areas of research from mental illness to macaque MRI. Will your keynote presentation highlight all areas of your research or focus on a specific direction that your lab is pursuing?
TJ: I run a research center called the Brainnetome Center. In this center, we have four key research themes: the basic theory of the Brainnetome, modeling and simulation of the Brainnetome, imaging instrument development, and translational medicine. I am really involved in diverse areas. However, in my keynote lecture, I will just focus on the Human Brainnetome atlas; what this is and how we can construct it with anatomical connectivity profiles, how we can verify its reliability with different methods, and how we can apply it to address a variety of issues from neuroscience and clinical practice. I will also give a perspective in this field.
ED: You are involved in a major “Brainnetome” project. What is the Brainnetome – and what do you hope to achieve with the data?
TJ: The Brainnetome (Brain-net-ome) is a new –ome. It takes a brain network as basic research unit, which consists of two components: a node and a connection. It can be studied on different scales from a neuron to a brain region. We hope to achieve the following five goals: (1). Topological Structure of Brain Networks (Brainnetome Atlas); (2). Dynamics and Characteristics of Brain Networks; (3). Network Manifestation of Functions and Malfunctions of the Brain; (4). Genetic Basis of Brain Networks; (5). Simulating and Modeling Brain Networks on Supercomputing Facilities. For more information on the Brainnetome, please refer to my paper entitled “Brainnetome: A new -ome to understand the brain and its disorders”, NeuroImage, 80 (2013):263–272.
KD: What do you consider to be your greatest scientific achievements?
TJ: My greatest scientific achievements are contributions to understanding of brain structural and functional organization, and their dysfunctions using neuroimaging, especially on development of the Human Brainnetome Atlas (HBA). The HBA includes 246 subregions and the anatomical and functional connectivity profiles for each subregion. The atlas is an in vivo map. The fine-grained functional brain subregions and associated anatomical/functional connection patterns could help researchers and clinicians to describe the large-scale architecture of the human brain and accurately localize the targeted brain regions for therapeutics. The HBA was among the Top 10 Breakthroughs in Science and Technology of China in 2016, jointly selected by the Fellows from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering. It was also ranked on the Top 10 Breakthroughs in Medicine of China in 2016. Recently, the HBA was selected as a part of 40 Milestone Achievements of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the last 40 years (1978 -2018).
KD: So this is a two part question: What is/are the most important things you do as a mentor with your team/lab? Second, is this advice based on your own experience during your training or things you wished you could have benefited from as a trainee?
TJ: I think that the most important things I have done as a mentor with my lab is to decide promising directions, which can be worked on for several decades and set up facilities for it. Then we need bright trainees and collaborators to work together. Great goals need a great team to achieve them.
BY Jessica Turner
This year’s OHBM Talairach awardee, Professor Riitta Hari, has had a momentous impact in magnetoencephalography (MEG) research. A professor emerita and Academician of Science and member of the US National Academy of Sciences, she has led the Brain Research Unit of the Low Temperature Laboratory at Aalto University in Finland since 1982. Her work has been critical in understanding how MEG sheds light on brain activity, and how that dynamical activity contributes to cognitive functions including action observation.
Here, Jessica Turner found out about Riitta’s background, her current work with artists and the remarkable, undistorted, window into the brain offered by MEG.
By Ilona Lipp
While there is nothing I would rather research than the brain, I dare say that brain imaging does not always feel like the most rewarding field of science to be in. A single study takes months - more often years - to plan and conduct, the methods can be very expensive and constantly under development, and the results, no matter how interesting, most often just seem like a tiny puzzle piece that (with a lot of luck) will have a (modest) impact in the (distant) future. Coming from this perspective, it was very refreshing for me to talk to somebody whose imaging research is as applied as it can possibly be: Gil Rabinovici. Gil is a professor in neurology, specialized in memory and aging. Using PET imaging with pathology-specific tracers, he does not only investigate mechanisms behind neurodegeneration, but also assesses the clinical applicability and utility of his imaging methods. He recently launched a study on amyloid-PET in more than 18000 people all across the US. Gil will be one of the keynote speakers in Rome and I had the pleasure to find out a bit about him and his research ahead of time.
Ilona Lipp (IL): Your research focuses on brain imaging in the context of neurodegeneration and dementia. What are these things called amyloids?
Gil Rabinovici (GR): Amyloids are biochemical structures, protein aggregates that form fibrillary beta-pleated sheets. While most protein aggregates associated with neurodegenerative diseases are amyloid fibrils, when people talk about amyloid they often refer to aggregates of the beta-amyloid polypeptide, first described as “miliary foci” by Alois Alzheimer in his seminal case report. In Alzheimer’s disease you have aggregated Tau protein in the neurofibrillary tangles and beta-amyloid in plaques. But amyloid is a very general term and there are various other kinds of amyloid that can cause diseases in the brain.
IL: How did imaging amyloids become one of your main research topics?
GR: I am a clinical neurologist and I realized early on that I am most interested in brain-behaviour relationships and in higher cognitive processes. So my research focuses on diseases that affect the core processes for us humans, such as memory. A problem with those diseases is that we often cannot offer a definite diagnosis. This is because for more than 100 years, diagnoses were purely based on symptoms. Brain tissue is not like other tissue where you could just do a biopsy for additional information. But the diagnosis that is given during somebody’s life only has 70% accuracy when compared to the diagnosis they would get based on their autopsy after death. This is a major barrier to developing effective treatments! And diagnoses are even less accurate early on in the disease stage where treatments often would be most beneficial.
I was a 3rd year resident when I read a paper about the first imaging agent for amyloid, a PET tracer named Pittsburgh Compound-B (PiB). This paper was the most exciting thing I had ever read because it had the potential to completely transform clinical practice. At that time, I was about to start a fellowship and I asked my mentor Bruce Miller whether we could also do something with that. A year later we started a collaboration with Bill Jagust, a PET expert at University of California Berkeley. We recruited patients in our memory clinic and referred them to Bill for scans, and that is really how my research career started.
IL: Since then, you have studied whether imaging data indeed helps to improve clinical diagnosis and prognosis. Are the results so far promising? Where are the methodological bottlenecks?
GR: My research follows two major themes. One is to use molecular imaging and combine it with structural and functional MRI to understand disease mechanisms by studying how disease processes evolve during life in a longitudinal fashion. This is now feasible with the advances in the imaging techniques, especially with PET, where it has been validated that we are really capturing the biology. The other theme is to think about how these advanced imaging techniques can be translated from the lab into the clinic, to improve the diagnosis and care of patients. The bottlenecks for my research are that the diseases that I study are slowly progressing. The earliest biological changes often happen 10 years or more before the first symptoms appear. To follow people from their earliest changes onwards requires very long, longitudinal studies, which are practically and logistically challenging. An even bigger bottleneck in terms of clinical applications at the moment is that our diagnostic abilities exceeds our treatment abilities. So how can we translate expensive scans into clinical practice when the diagnostic information they provide does not immediately lead to successful treatment?
IL: So what is the idea behind IDEAS then?
GR: Even though three amyloid PET markers have been approved by the FDA for clinical use, in the US, these scans are currently not covered by health insurance, and they cost several thousand dollars, so most patients would not be able to afford them privately. However, Medicare, the US health care for people over 65, does cover scans if they are part of research studies that test their clinical utility. IDEAS is a national strategy, funded by government, industry partners, and non-profit organizations. The aim is to assess two things: whether having PET scans can change short-term patient management and whether they improve patient outcomes. We are testing 18000 patients with cognitive impairment of unclear origin in the whole of the US across 600 sites and in 350 PET facilities. We have, so far, been able to demonstrate that having this additional diagnostic information does have a very high effect on short-term management. It did change management in over 60% of cases, this is twice as much as what we expected. And the effects are not necessarily in form of pharmaceutical treatment, but also just making small changes in the patients’ lives to avoid medical events that could be a result of their diagnosed condition.
IL: Having worked on such multi-center studies, how many knowledge gaps do you think can individual brain imaging labs still fill – or should we all be pushing towards multi-center and consortium data?
GR: I am not sure I recommend managing 600 sites, that was really an exercise in losing control (laughs). IDEAS is quite exceptional, but other multi-site studies do also have a role. Individual labs are still important, they play a role in pushing the methodology and innovating techniques. It can take years between the development of a new technique and its application. For example, it took years to get a structural imaging sequence ready that is suitable for multi-site studies. So individual labs push this innovation, multi-site studies just generate big data that can be used, for example, for machine learning to detect relationship and patterns that our brains would not be able to see. But I still think we can learn from small studies with clean data and specific hypotheses.
IL: And what direction is your own research going to take in the next few years?
GR: I would like to keep pushing the research on disease mechanism, also using more Tau-imaging with PET. I am also more and more interested in what we yet cannot see. While there has been a lot of progress, we still have a very limited set of tools to study brain aging and disease. I am hoping to develop new tracers that also allow imaging other proteins, neuroinflammation, synaptic density etc.
IL: Your research requires various areas of expertise: the imaging itself, the image processing side, the clinical side and then the statistical analysis. Can you tell us what your secret for successfully conducting inter-disciplinary research is?
GR: I have the great fortune of working with a wonderful team with complementary skills and great collaborators. To do clinical research, you really need multi-disciplinarity, it is a team science, both within and across centers. I also think that the idea that one modality is enough to study a disease lies in the past. We need all tools we can get to understand a disease on a more holistic level.
IL: If a junior scientist came up to you and asked: “Gil, one day I also want to be an OHBM keynote speaker, how do I do it?”, what advice would you give them?
GR: Find something you are passionate about and follow your heart. Science is a calling, not a 9 to 5 job, I mean, you can do it as a job, but you would not be successful or happy. Also, find something that is meaningful, for example, for me as a physician, doing research with very direct implications for my patients. Another piece of advice I would give is to say yes more often than to say no to new opportunities. It is important to focus, but equally important to expand your horizon. If you are too focused on a narrow topic, you may miss the opportunity to lead your research in a promising new direction. Also, choose great mentors. Great not as in famous people who won a lot of prizes, but people you can work with and who care for your development. I find that often the role of mentors is underestimated. I have been really lucky that way and could not have done it without having had such great mentors.
IL: Last but not least, can you give us a little teaser about your OHBM talk, without spoiling too much?
GR: I can say as much: it will be better than the last episode of Game of Thrones (laughs). I will give some background on Alzheimer’s disease, explain the biology, and describe how imaging techniques in longitudinal studies have changed our approach to understanding diagnosis, treatment and care.
IL: I am very much looking forward to this, thank you.
GR: See you in Rome!
Trainees represent more than half of all OHBM members (63% at OHBM 2018 in Singapore). In Singapore, the Student and Postdoc Special Interest Group (SP-SIG) organised the 'Secrets behind Success' Career Development Symposium and Lunch with Mentors event, where we heard very heartfelt and honest talks from Lucina Uddin and Tom Nichols, who talked about switching from academia to industry, and back again. The SP-SIG also hosted the Monday Night Social/Open Science Gala at 1-Altitude, with a breath-taking view of Marina Bay during the OHBM conference in Singapore. Beyond the annual conference, the SP-SIG provides ongoing support for trainees via the online international mentoring programme. This programme pairs researchers across the world, providing new links between OHBM members at different stages of their careers.
Open Science Gala
‘Secrets behind Success' Career Development Symposium and Lunch with Mentors event
We sat down with Ayaka Ando, the current (2018-2019) Chair of the SP-SIG and discussed what they have been up to and their plans for the new year.
Chiara Caldinelli (CC): Hi Ayaka, tell us a bit about yourself.
Ayaka Ando (AA): My name is Ayaka and I am a postdoc at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Heidelberg University in Germany, working on multimodal imaging. I am particularly focussed on kids with psychiatric disorder development.
CC: Tell us about the upcoming Student and Postdoc SIG activities in Rome 2019?
AA: We are definitely growing and expanding our activities in Rome! Of course we have our annual Career Development and Mentoring Symposium, where Dr Melanie Stefan and Dr Danielle Bassett will discuss their own journeys towards success in academia. As in Singapore, the symposium will be followed by our catered ‘Lunch with Mentors’ event where trainees will get to sit down and informally chat about career development with both new and established PIs, as well as industry experts (learn more of our Lunch with Mentors event). We are also very excited about the Monday Night Social/Open Science Gala event, which will be hosted at the beautiful gardens of Rome at the Vyta Casa Del Cinema a Villa Borghese.
We are also delighted to announce our new venture! We will be hosting a dedicated Student and Postdoc SIG space during this year’s annual meeting. One room will be a dedicated space for mentors and mentees of the International Online Mentoring Programme (or any mentor/mentees who would like to catch up) to meet. In another room, we will be hosting a number of equality- and career development-oriented workshops. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we have invited a special international guest from New York, Emma Kaywin, who is a conflict mediator and a sexual health educator. She’ll be advising trainees in managing their interpersonal relationships with one another and their superiors. Additionally, we will host a career switching workshop for trainees considering transitioning from academia to industry. We are very excited about the new SP-SIG space and welcome everyone and anyone who is interested to join the workshops. Stay tuned for details!
CC: Why do you think a special interest group at OHBM representing trainees is needed?
AA: The trainees represent more than half of the OHBM members, so it’s very important that there is a group to represent their needs. The SP-SIG’s goal is to create a community and a platform to support the development of trainees. That’s why we host the International Online Mentorship Programme, as well as organise events geared towards career development and networking. We are really passionate about supporting, empowering and creating a positive and encouraging atmosphere for trainees who are not only pursuing careers in academia, but also thinking about transitioning into industry.
CC: In today’s world of increasingly difficult funding situations, trainees are actively seeking non-academic career opportunities. What do you think are the biggest hurdles OHBM trainees face in doing so?
AA: I think the biggest challenges may be that a lot of us have a pure academic experience within our careers and we don’t know what skills are needed, what industry employers are looking for, what being in industry really means. So we don’t know exactly what it is like to be in industry, and only a few of us do industrial internships. For example, Tom Nichols said in last year’s “Secrets Behind Success” symposium that while he worked in industry, he noticed that there was a very fast change-over of staff. People who’s never had experience in industry may not be aware of this. I think academia is quite a particular environment, quite different from industry. It’s therefore really important to inform ourselves as much as possible. To help with this, we are trying to organize our mentorship programme in cooperation with people working in industry, so that the trainees have the opportunity to talk to people outside of academia.
CC: What are your plans to address these issues in Rome 2019? Are there some initiatives that you would like to highlight?
AA: Yes, definitely! We went around the industry exhibitors throughout the conference in Singapore to recruit more industry people to be involved in the International Online Mentoring Programme. We also managed to have three industry mentor tables at the Lunch with Mentors event at OHBM 2018 in Singapore. Looking at the statistics from our online mentoring programme on mentees’ long-term goals and the advice that they are seeking from mentors, we noticed that there were increases in percentage of people interested in industry positions. Therefore, we are trying our best to recruit more industry mentors. We are also organising a career-switching workshop at the SP-SIG Space in Rome this year so I hope that this will be helpful to trainees.
CC: How diverse is the participation in the many SIG initiatives? And what can be done to improve this?
AA: We already have a good gender distribution within our committee, as well as in our mentoring programme, which we are really proud of. But we still need to work on the geographic diversity around the world - we are very Europe and US-heavy. We have a smaller portion from Australasia, and an even smaller representation from South America, the Middle East and Africa. It would be great to get more people involved from these underrepresented regions. What would be really nice would be to talk to people from around the world who will be at the conference and see what their needs are and how we can get them more involved. Also, this year, we have a wider representation within the SP-SIG organising members so I hope this will help in the participation too!
CC: What is the one thing that you have learnt from your tenure in the SIG? And how has this helped you in other facets of your life?
AA: I think one of the most important things about being in a committee is to be a team player. That is definitely important! I think researchers should generally be good at this because you have to collaborate, you have lab members and you need to work together. But one key aspect of being a team player that I have particularly realised in this committee is that you should have faith in the people in your team - most people are very, very capable and I can trust them to do things that need to be done in their own way. I guess the sort of chair I aspire to be is someone who oversees and encourages, rather than micromanages. For example, you are the social coordinator, Chiara, so I want to give you space to do it your own way and I trust that you will pull off something really awesome in Rome too!
That’s what I’ve learnt from Michele, our previous chair, she was like that and I think she was an excellent leader. She trusted us that we would do a good job. I also feel that everyone in this committee is very fluid with their positions. It has never been the case like ‘I am the treasurer, I only count the money’. I think everyone is very cooperative and works together very effectively to organise and host the each event and programme we have today. I also think that promoting positivity, encouragement and transparent communication is very important and key to naturally motivate and create an open, collaborative environment. So, working in a team, trusting the team members and bringing positive energy are the main things that I try and incorporate in my life.