This week, I was fortunate enough to attend a public seminar as part of Brain Awareness Week, given by three University of Exeter researchers – Craig Beall, Senior Lecturer in Metabolic Neuroscience; Isabel Castanho, Postdoctoral Researcher in the Medical School; and Alastair McDonald, PhD Student.
I discovered Brain Awareness Week last year when I was relatively new to the University and keen to understand what the research fellows I saw in the corridors and at lunch everyday actually did. Aimed at non-professionals, it provides bitesize talks for anyone who wants to attend, with Q&A sessions at the end (as well as a cheeky drink!).
Craig talked about his work in diabetes, and the importance of glucose as ‘rocket fuel’ for the brain. He explained about a protein in our brains called ‘MIF’, and when we have low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) how MIF is thrown out at a higher rate. This also happens to people with dementia, and so there are similarities between the diseases that can be studied. People with diabetes are more likely to get dementia, and this may be connected to the AMPK enzyme in our brains which acts as a fuel gauge for brain energy supply.
Isabel talked about dementia (the umbrella term for a set of symptoms) and Alzheimer’s disease which accounts for approximately 2/3rds of dementia cases. She described how epigenetics i.e. the study of things ‘beyond genetics’ could identify targets to help halt the progression of dementia. Whilst we cannot change our DNA (yet!), the regulation of genes can be modified or evet reversed by altering gene expression (how much a gene is turned on or off), for example, how accessible a gene is in the body – they could be wound up tightly in a ball, or grouped together which then makes it harder to reach them.
Alastair talked about ‘glia’ being ‘not just brain glue’, which makes up approximately half of our brains (the other half is made up of neurons). Glia is made up of three types of non-neuronal cells – oligodendrocytes which provide electrical insulation, microglia which protects the brain by surveying tissue for intruders and mounting an immune response, and finally astrocytes which contact the blood vessels, provide neurons with fuel and ‘clean up’ neurotransmitters. There are approximately 4 astrocytes for every 3 neurons in our bodies, and these might be at the core of why we can process more information than other animals. It has been shown that astrocytes inflame and lose their function in diseases such as Parkinson’s and obesity, so Alastair is conducting further research into this.
As a whistle-stop tour of just a handful of research projects currently taking place at the University, I found them insightful and hopeful during fairly unsettled times out there. The cutting edge research and knowledge of the speakers really did expand my brain, so I am grateful to the Dana Foundation in New York for founding Brain Awareness Week, and the welcoming volunteers and speakers at Exeter that put so much effort into reaching out to us all.