Interview with Dr. Bruno Benedetti, Ph.D

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. Bruno Benedetti, Ph.D

Senior PostDoc, Institute for Experimental Neuroregeneration, Spinal Cord Injury and Tissue Regeneration Center Salzburg (SCI-TReCS)

Paracelsus Medical Private University, Salzburg, Austria

Graduating with honours after a master in Neuroscience at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) & University of Trieste, Dr. Benedetti did his PhD in Medical Neuroscience at the Humboldt University, Berlin and International Graduate Program of Medical Neuroscience, Charité, Berlin. He did his dissertation in the laboratory of Helmut Kettenman (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Berlin Buch), graduating with honours. He started his postdoctoral training at the Medical University of Innsbruck in 2012, working on calcium channels, muscle physiology and motor dysfunctions related to disorders of the central nervous system. He moved to Salzburg in 2016 and currently focuses his work on nervous tissue regeneration after spinal cord injury. Dr. Benedetti is a core member of the Verein für Lokale Wissenschaftskommunikation, local coordinator of the “Wissensdurst Festival”: Austrian Festival of Science. He is also extended board member of the Austrian Neuroscience Association (ANA) and president of the Young ANA network.

  1. What inspired you to pursue neuroscience as a career? 

As kid, I was curious about biology and about the brain, but commitment for neuroscience only emerged from a jumble of interests and possibilities at the end of my undergraduate education. I remember travelling Europe on a budget, taking interviews for a PhD position while trying to keep up with a part-time job and wondering if anything would come out of all that effort. Luckily, I entered an excellent training program and had the opportunity to work in a good laboratory, for a great mentor. Great mentorship and a rewarding postgraduate experience are the main factors that changed curiosity into lifetime commitment.

2. What do you think is the most important goal of neuroscience research? 
Science should aim to improve the quality of life through a better understanding of nature and a better control of its processes. I believe it is most important to entertain projects with focus on such goal, but I would find hard to set priorities. It is rather responsibility and merit of each scientist to honestly question their goal’s relevance. As for popularity: the perceived relevance of scientific topics is affected by economic interests, but this should not be the ideal paradigm by which the quality of research projects are judged. Combining relevance for improvement of life quality and economic relevance, in my niche, it would be very attractive to improve the capacity of regeneration of damaged brain tissue, to enhance cognitive skills, and to significantly prolong the healthy life of the brain. So, perhaps, those are my top three.

3. What are the main topics and goals of your research? Most neurons in our brain are generated before birth. After birth, they grow and mature, but they no longer divide: they do not generate new daughter cells. Only in few small areas of the brain known as “neurogenic niches” some neuronal precursors remain immature and proliferate also during adulthood, constantly giving birth to new neurons. Such new neurons only colonize few specific brain areas. As result, few “lucky” adult brain regions benefit of newly added neurons and the rest of the brain has to be content with the same old neurons from birth to death. At least, this is what everyone thought until few years ago. Quite recently it emerged instead that several brain regions, which are not neurogenic niches, also contain latent neuronal precursors. Strikingly, precursors outside the neurogenic niches do not proliferate. Therefore, they are an exhaustible pool of cells and they are used up with age. After such discovery, scientists speculated about what the role of the latent precursors may be. On one hand, these cells could be a valuable but limited resource to be used as “spare parts” for the aging brain. Alternatively, the brain could need the precursors to generate an entirely new type of neurons adding complexity to the pre-existing networks. Recently it was my honor to contribute determining the fate of the latent non-proliferative precursors in the adult brain. So far, our results imply that the latent precursors outside the neurogenic niches mature in a new type of neuron, functioning differently from their preexisting neighbors. What is the role of these cells for brain functions? What will happen to the brain if it did not have such precursors or if it run out of precursors too quickly? We are currently searching for answers. Stay tuned!

4. What accomplishment do you think is the most important out of your own research?  The developing research on non-proliferative precursors (see previous paragraph) have great potential. While the relevance of these cells for the brain function is so far speculative, I suspect that they may be very important and exploitable for the betterment of our health and cognitive skills. Being among the first to functionally characterize these cells was a great privilege. Finding how to exploit this resource for human health will be an exciting challenge. As purely personal accomplishment, scientific research helped me gaining better appreciation for excellence, patience, humility and teamwork. The most tangible fruit of a job well done is an excellent publication. However, there is a lot of fulfillment in the personal growth that makes the experience consistently repeatable.

5. What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years in the field of neuroscience? I want to become independent and established. In term of scientific projects, this translates in my current attempts to refine a strategy for fine-tuning the brain (cortical) plasticity. I am endeavoring in such direction with particular interest toward recovery from spinal cord injury. The goal for the next years is to deliver reliable plasticity-inducing paradigms for treatments that can be customized according to individual needs and pathophysiological context.

Bonus question: What is your advice to a teenager who wants to learn more about neuroscience?Neuroscience is a broad subject that can be approached with different perspectives. You might decide to study neuroscience as a biologist, medical doctor, psychologist, physicist, engineer etc. While the knowledge of one profession is sufficient to carry out a job, excellent research will greatly benefit of a broader education. Since you, inquisitive teenager, are probably busy deciding how to shape up your future, I suggest to choose the course of education which is best suited to your skills and taste, but keep exploring other disciplines, to help you understanding matters of neuroscience that are not explained by yours.