In this column, I ask neuroscience professors from around the world the same five questions. Read on to learn more about their research, careers and goals for neuroscience in the future.
Interview with Dr András Lakatos, MD, PhD, MRCP
Dr. András Lakatos is leading an MRC funded regenerative neurobiology laboratory at the University of Cambridge, and he is also a practicing consultant clinical neurologist. Should you be interested in his neuroscience research, you can follow his group at @LakatosLab or at www.lakatoslab.co.uk.
1. What inspired you to pursue neuroscience as a career?
Several things and people. I was initially inspired by my parents who are medics too, so chatting over the Sunday roast at the table had put me on this track probably at the first place. Great lectures delivered by excellent neuroanatomists Katalin Köves and Béla Halász in Budapest have certainly influenced me. I can recall when a dogma-breaking paper was published by Fred Gage’s group at the end of the 90’s. This had opened up new directions and hopes in neural repair strategies and has further attracted me to the field. My curiosity in neurosciences had been fuelled during my PhD, postdoc and clinical years in the UK by several renowned neurobiology professors, mentors and later collaborators, including Robin Franklin, Sue Barnett, James Fawcett. You need to have people around, who can inspire you in addition to working on something rewarding.
2. What do you think is the most important goal of neuroscience research?
I am not sure there is such thing as ‘the most important goal’. There are several subjects in which discovery is equally urgent. This spans from the principles of wiring of the brain to topics such as the mysterious loss of neuronal connections in brain diseases, especially in those common conditions that lead to memory loss (dementia). Perhaps a unifying important goal is to fully explore the previously under-appreciated cellular diversity in the central nervous system, which adds to the functional complexity of the human brain. This may eventually help better understand the precise causes that may disrupt healthy cell functions in disease.
3. What are the main topics and goals of your research?
My research group focuses on how non-neuronal cells such as glial cells regulate neuronal functions in health and disease. For long they have been regarded only as support cells for neurons or the ‘brain glue’ hence the Greek name ‘glia’. More recently, it has been fascinating to learn that these cells tightly regulate the connections between neurons apart from maintaining their health. While it emerges that a major glial cell type, the astrocyte could also be detrimental in untreatable and disabling neurological diseases leading to dementia, problems with movements or loss of muscle strength. This includes Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease or Motor Neuron Disease. So it is not surprising that astrocytes have already attracted interest from scientists who are trying to turn these cells from a toxic state to a protective one. In my lab we are working on a ‘molecular switch’ that would make this conversion possible. In particular we use human neurons and glial cells derived from stem cells of patients to make our observations more relevant to human neurological diseases.
4. What accomplishment do you think is the most important out of your own research?
It has been very rewarding to make some early contributions to the concept that reactive astrocytes – a cell state reflecting responses to injury – is not always detrimental but can also support the neuronal network. Using novel models relevant to human Motor Neuron Disease, we demonstrated where these beneficial pathways could potentially break down. Lately, our research have also contributed to the development of a state-of-the-art human model system in a dish, called the ‘minibrain’ by collaborating with other groups in Cambridge. This has attracted immense interest as models like this have a potential to revolutionize research tools helping to understand human brain function or dysfunction. This is a very exciting development but more research is required until we can fully implement this approach.
5. What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years in the field of neuroscience?
The development of new tools in neurosciences has been accelerating, especially in the last two decades, which also had an impact on our scientific work. For instance we use single cell gene expression analysis that allows us to identify individual cell types or to discover new ones at a larger scale and to predict their specific function at ease. In addition, novel gene-manipulation techniques have been developed that can more accurately help elucidate important cell functions in our studies. Now, in the lab we can use these approaches to see how important observations made in rodent models relate to human biology, this is called ‘translational research’. Nevertheless, human stem cell based models in a dish, such as the ‘minibrain’ provide an unprecedented opportunity allowing for making new discoveries relevant to human brain function in health and in disease.
Bonus question: What is your advice to a teenager who wants to learn more about neuroscience?
Having chats with your biology teacher in school is a good start. I was lucky to have a fantastic teacher, Feri Kecskés who thought us the basics of cell biology in Budapest when I was a teenager. You can get local experts to give talks in your school on a subject of your interest. My excellent young colleagues in the lab enjoy visiting schools in Cambridge and to talk to pupils about our research, raising their awareness and interest neurobiology. However, fundamentally, you don’t want to commit yourself studying only neuroscience at this stage, and you would be better off exploring how things work in biology in general. Fortunately, there are a number of websites out there, which can help you achieving this. In specific, following biologists and neuroscientist via Twitter is now almost a ‘gold standard’ in getting up-to-date information. Our University also organizes a science festival each year, which is a fantastic opportunity to start engaging with sciences and neuroscience as a teenager in particular.