By Niall Duncan
The rich scientific program enjoyed each year at the OHBM conference is the product of persistent hard work by the program committee. They take the raw material of the abstracts and proposals submitted by scientists all over the world and craft it into the finely polished end result that we all see. That means deciding which symposia get the green light, which abstracts become oral presentations and which posters only, and which researchers will be given the distinction of presenting their work in a keynote address.
This year the committee was chaired by Prof. Guillén Fernandez of the Donders Institute. We met with him to find out how the process went this year, to learn about his scientific path, and to hear his thoughts about the brain and how we study it.
Niall Duncan (ND): Professor Fernandez, welcome. You’re the program chair this year. In that process were there any particular unexpected challenges that came up? Any surprises?
Guillén Fernández (GF): There’s a pretty regular operation that you do every year. You get all the abstracts, the proposals for the keynotes, and so forth, and then you get together the program committee who meet in person and by teleconference. Then we just put together a nice program that fits the interesting topics together while considering some factors of diversity of gender and geography. Sometimes there is a surprise like a keynote is not available, so then you have to look for another one - that sometimes makes the balancing out in the end difficult. We were also interested to get certain topics that are currently of particular interest, large cohort studies, for example, into the program. It was all done quite smoothly.
ND: You started out as a medical doctor and then made the switch to what we could call basic science. Why did you make that switch?
GF: I actually started doing science while in med school, and that continued throughout my residency as a neurologist. At that time I initially did electrophysiology, then later also neuroimaging. It was hard to see how I could use these methods in my clinical practice - there was a gap in understanding. That was something that interested me so I worked on it and then you’re automatically away from clinically applied science, from science that is useful for clinical application.
A second point was that I liked clinical work and scientific research but I saw that it was difficult to do both at a good level. To be a good clinician and a good scientist is just difficult at the same time. Some people are able but I thought it was a stretch for me. I wanted to avoid being a kind of mediocre clinician and a good scientist, or vice versa, so then I decided to go for science only. Then there was this position at the Donders which I got and so the decision was made.
ND: And the rest was history... So, starting out as a physician, and then moving into brain science only, do you think that background has shaped the way that you think about the brain and how to study it?
GF: Yes, I think the disadvantage is that at med school and residency you are not that well trained in carrying out science. I think there is a deficit which you have to compensate for. But, on the other hand, as a clinician you have a very good overview of all kinds of things. You are quite pragmatic in your approach and I think you can more easily see the relevance of things sometimes. So, if you are too theoretical, too conceptual, then I sometimes in interactions with colleagues have the idea that it’s easier for physicians to be pragmatic in some aspects.
ND: A lot of your research has focussed on stress – both current stress and developmental stress. What was it that lead you into that area of study?
GF: I worked on, and my work is still quite focussed on, memory. I’m interested in states where memory formation - establishing a new memory trace, or retrieving that or stabilisation of it - is either impaired or improved. Stressful states are quite unique in the sense that they improve memory formation and subsequent stabilisation, but impair retrieval. And that’s a nice approach.
The second point is that I think neuroscience, and in particular neuroimaging, can bring something to understanding mental disorders, and I’m quite interested in why and how traumatic experiences are so well remembered that the memories become maladaptive to the individual. That is something about mental disorders that I am in the long term interested to understand more about. I’m trained as a neurologist but now my research might be more relevant for psychiatry. That’s something that I developed and is the reason why I research the effect of acute stress on memory formation and retrieval.
Developmentally, the human brain - the brain in general - is a very plastic organ and therefore is shaped by the experiences one has. These might make the brain later on more susceptible to, for example, negative memories. This memory bias and how that develops over the lifetime is something I am interested in.
ND: You’ve published many great papers but do you have a favourite paper or research project?
GF: I think that with our stress work there are some quite different studies that fit together nicely. There we have developed a model - that we also described in a review paper - that I think is particularly nice because we manipulated cortisol, we manipulated norepinephrine, and even with the genetic studies it all fitted together nicely. That makes the model quite nice and changed the perception, in my view, of the effect of cortisol in the brain. It’s usually just the bad boy but if I understand the more recent literature well then it appears to be that it is quite helpful in the acute state to get back to a normal state. So that’s more a dampening and normalisation function of cortisol, which is a different view. If you look into the literature twenty years ago then it’s always the bad boy. In the chronic state it probably still is, but in the acute not. That’s the most interesting.
ND: Similarly, you’ve taken what could be called emotions and applied it to what some people might call a cognitive function in memory. Do I understand that correctly, and if that interaction between emotions and cognition is correct what do you think that tells us about how the brain works?
GF: Sometimes I have trouble distinguishing between what an emotion is and what a cognition is. Sometimes they might be more or less the same. I think that there are states in the brain, for example acute stress, arousal, or threat perception, that affect a whole set of cognitive processes. We have to understand that a bit better. There are the second by second cognitive processes that are going on, the computations, and there’s more slowly modulated states that go rather in minutes, and sometimes also more rapidly. Trying to understand the interaction between these is something we are not doing often. We are usually lucky, we are happy, that we can kind of get something done on just the cognition, or just on the state, and I think we have to look more into that interaction. These states have different timescales and different spatial distributions. In neuromodulatory terms they are processes from norepinephrine, or serotonin or dopamine, that have an effect all over the brain. We have to capture these slowly modulated states in the brain and how they affect specific processes.
ND: And finally, if you were the program chair in five years time, which topics do you think will be the most exciting for everyone?
GF: Predictions are difficult! I can at least express my hope, whether it will be fulfilled in five years I don’t know. I hope that we will have bigger systematic studies, on the one hand. Not only them as I hope we will also keep the small hypothesis testing experiments, but at the same time we should have larger systematic studies that go after more complex interactions between the different cognitive levels, or emotions and cognitions, the different brain states, in a more systematic way. I think that will be there.
I think that we will still see new methods for analysis. We are already getting to see machine learning and artificial intelligence used for data analysis. I think it will help us with more complex patterns that we are currently having difficulties to grasp. And, probably not in five years but hopefully soon, we will get useful biomarkers from neuroimaging in mental disorders, so that they are really informative for diagnostics, for treatment selection or prediction. These I hope for in five years.
ND: Here’s hoping! Dr. Fernandez, thank you very much for your time!