Research on the brain

By Aideen Sullivan, University College Cork

neuronal-signalling-coverI am very excited about the launch of Portland Press’s new journal Neuronal Signaling, which will publish research articles on all aspects of communication within the nervous system, and, crucially, make these articles available online for everyone to read. One aspect of Neuronal Signaling that is particularly appealing to me is the intention to produce lay summaries of some of the articles. The aim of this is to explain to the public, in non-scientific language, the meaning of the research and the impact that it may have to patients and to society.

Communicating science to the public is something that interests me greatly. As scientists working in biological research, we strive to cure disease and disability, to help people live for longer with able bodies and able minds, and to improve the world in which we live. This boils down to a fundamental aim of enhancing the lives of each individual and of society. To achieve this aim, we must strive to always keep that individual in mind when designing and conducting experiments.

In the case of my own research, that individual is the patient living with the debilitating neurological disorder, Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a very common disorder, with 1 in 500 people suffering from it. Age is the greatest risk factor for developing Parkinson’s and, since we are all living longer lives, an ever-increasing number of us will suffer from this disease. Parkinson’s is difficult to diagnose and treat, there is currently no cure and it affects not only the lives of the individual patients, but also the lives of the family members who care for them.

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As a scientist and educator, I feel that it is my responsibility to inform the public of the relevance of my research (which is for the most part funded by taxpayers) to the individual. An achievement that I am proud of in this area is the BRAINTALK event that I organized last year, along with my colleagues Dr Shane Hegarty and Dr Gerard O’Keeffe.

Having run several symposia for scientists working on Parkinson’s disease, I decided to try something different – to put the patients at the centre of an event. The BRAINTALK meeting brought together scientists, clinicians, patients and caregivers, and involved not only presentations by experts, but also an art exhibition, which included paintings made by Parkinson’s patients as well as photographs showing the scientific research ongoing in our department. There was an uplifting performance by the Move4Parkinsons choir from Dublin and the Voices of Hope choir from Kilkenny, who joined together for a moving rendition of “Something Inside So Strong”, which brought everyone in the room to their feet. To conclude the event, several of the people with Parkinson’s paired up with us neuroscientists for a set-dancing session. This dance felt like a dialogue between those affected by Parkinson’s and those working to develop new therapies, and thus a fitting finale to a day designed to bridge gaps between researchers and patients.

I occasionally meet a lady from the local Parkinson’s Support Group, who attended the BRAINTALK meeting, at my local swimming-pool. Last week, she approached me to ask what the recently-announced Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy, meant for her disease and its treatment. This lady is in her seventies, yet she eagerly scans the media each day searching for news relevant to Parkinson’s disease and optimistically places her faith in scientists like us to discover a cure for her disease. Her questions made me appreciate anew the appetite of patients for news from the scientific community. Patients are interested, they are hungry for knowledge of the research that takes place in our labs that may one day improve or lengthen their lives, or ultimately provide a cure for their disease. They want to have access to up-to-date information on the latest scientific breakthroughs.

autophagy-shutterstock_494829226Autophagy is a process by which cells, including neurons, can break down and recycle their own constituents. A protein called alpha-synuclein accumulates in the brains of people with Parkinson’s, forming aggregates that interfere with the functions of neurons and resulting in the death of these cells. It is possible that this accumulation may be caused by disrupted autophagy in the neurons that are affected by Parkinson’s. In the future, it may be possible to stimulate the autophagy processes within these neurons to improve their ability to get rid of the pathological alpha-synuclein, leading to a potential therapy for Parkinson’s disease. 

For those of us with the means and opportunity to do so, online databases of medical and scientific journals give us the ability to read and assess the results of studies that have been rigorously peer-reviewed by experts. Unfortunately, for many lay people, online research means using Google, which all-too-often throws up misleading and dangerous scare-stories. As scientists, we should communicate to the public in plain language, without using jargon. Learning about relevant findings in research will empower patients and help them to manage their own treatment, to shape their own prognosis, and to be involved in the crucial decisions made by their healthcare professionals, which will affect the quality of their lives.

Professor Aideen Sullivan is Editor in Chief of Portland Press’s new journal Neuronal Signaling. To receive regular updates and e-alerts about the journal fill out your contact details here or contact the editorial team on if you have any queries. Editorial staff from Neuronal Signaling will be attending Neuroscience 2016 in San Diego, so please come and visit Portland Press at booth number 4004 if you plan to attend.


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