A Woman In Science, Brain & Health

Human research in neuroscience – Thoughts of a neuropsychologist

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What do researchers do in the field of human neuroscience? This is very hard to summarize! Imagine that you were to be asked to write about the vast field of animal research in one article. What would you focus on? Firstly, there are lots of different neuroscientific disciplines that focus on human studies: psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, biomedical engineering, medicine, biology, and physics to name some. The coming together of this wide variety of specialists contribute in a big way to our understanding of the human mind and brain.

From my own experience as a neuropsychologist, human research has a variety of ups and downs. What still draws me to this field is my strong interest in how the human mind and brain work. Apart from that, research on human subjects enables us to make direct inferences on our own species - which is great! What I also find rewarding is that in many cases, psychological interventions and treatments can be used on humans without prior animal research. Moreover, it is very motivating to receive direct feedback on our treatment from our participants. Humans can describe what is going on in their minds and bodies. They can talk about their feelings. This is a whole world of information (with some exceptions) that is unfortunately unavailable to animal researchers. Many researchers choose to work with human subjects as they may be unable to come to terms with sacrificing animals, which is a crucial part in some animal research.

However, there are some drawbacks to human research as well. It appears very convenient for a human researcher (as animal researcher do) to “order” a participant with a certain genetic profile and subsequently being able to control for most of their experiences throughout their entire lifespans. This is of course not possible in my kind of research, which entails studying the neuronal and behavioural correlates of stressor controllability and resilience. I need to deal with the fact that I cannot control for many variables and that causal inferences are hard to achieve. For this reason, human researchers depend on advanced statistical skills and larger sample sizes to still be able to draw conclusions. Huge advantages of animal research are that it enables us to test drug effects or to examine actual brain tissue. In humans, this is much more difficult to realize. Some studies are investigating patients that undergo brain surgery, usually done while the patients are awake, wherein the direct stimulation of brain tissue is possible. Yet, this kind of research is quite rare compared to animal research. Despite great progress in neuroimaging methods, we still do not know what exactly happens in the alive human brain on the neuronal level.

Based on my limited experience and observation, I think that animal and human research could inspire and inform each other more. One example for successful interdisciplinary exchange is when research on human diseases and clinical conditions inspires animal studies. There are many animal models of Parkinson’s disease or depression out there. Unfortunately, these models are often difficult to fully comprehend for human researchers, so they lose us as an audience and hamper possible collaborations. This is a pity, as it would be an easy way to improve the validity of animal models of neurological disorders by collaborating with clinical psychologists. So, why not talking to each other when modeling a new phenotype for psychiatric disorders?

On the other hand, there are more and more attempts at translational science. For instance, I attended a talk by an animal researcher about glucose metabolism in the rodent brain at the resilience symposium 2018; due to the speaker’s ability to adjust his talk for a broad audience it was not too challenging to follow. It remained in my mind as a great experience. Huge parts of human studies are based on animal models. But this is very often not done in a proper translational way. One example of a well-structured translational approach is drug development. Human clinical trials directly build upon basic animal research in a defined and ethically monitored process. In my ideal scientific world, truly translational models - from animal research to humans, but also vice versa - would form a key component of scientific collaborations.

One major part of my PhD is the translation of the rodent model of depression (learned helplessness after uncontrollable stress). Fortunately, that turned out to be quite successful. To be as close to the original model as possible, I carefully read through protocols that exactly explained every detail of the experimental procedure in rodents. I admire how exact animal researcher must be to replicate studies that used this model and how much easier it is to implement a method described in such a detailed manner. In human research, I found many studies looking into the same topic, but most of them had a different experimental set-up. They basically invented the wheel anew. This discrepancy between the description and execution of the two models urged me to read up more data from animal models, taking their results into account when I formulate my hypotheses.

To conclude, I think, there should be more collaboration between animal and human researchers to enable better translational science. It could be helpful for researchers in both fields to attend conferences that bring both their fields together and talk to researchers from other disciplines. Also, adapting our own talks to make it understandable for a broader audience might be beneficial. This would help understand each other better and find fruitful synergies to inspire each other’s work.

Background info Katja Schueler:
I studied Psychology, then worked for about two years outside academia and now I am in my third year of PhD in the group of Michele Wessa (Clinical and Neuropsychology) at the JGU, where I work on stress-related mental disorders. I am part of the collaborative research center CRC1193 “Neurobiology of resilience” and the German Resilience Center, which brought me into contact animal researcher, e.g. some members of the NGC Mainz. Until April 2019, I am on a six month research visit in the Risk & Resilience Group at the Psychiatry Department of the University of Cambridge, to further deepen my methodological skills in network analysis and connectivity.

Personal homepage: www.katjaschueler.com (in preparation)
Mainz website: https://www.clinical-psychology-and-neuropsychology.uni-mainz.de/department-members/katja-schuler-m-sc/
Cambridge website: https://www.riskandresiliencegroup.uk/visiting-student-katja-schueler/

Written by: Katja Schueler; Edited by: Radhika Menon.  Featured Image: NGC/Design; Infographic: NGC/Carine Thalman.

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