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Scientist Focus: Dr Tara Spires-Jones

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Dr Tara Spires-Jones is based at the University of Edinburgh, where she studies the connections between nerve cells in the brain to understand how they become disrupted in Alzheimer’s disease.

Tara has just been appointed Chair of the Alzheimer’s Research UK Grant Review Board, the panel of experts that meets to recommend the most promising research projects that the charity should fund. We caught up with Tara to find out a bit more about her.

Name and job title

Dr Tara Spires-Jones, Interim Director, Centre for Cognitive and Neural System; Reader and Chancellor’s Fellow, Edinburgh Neuroscience, University of Edinburgh.

What was your early career path to being a researcher?

I’ve always loved nature and science, and when I went to university I had to make a choice between drama and science. Through winning a drama competition, scholarship opportunities opened up and I was offered one in chemistry and so took the decision that I was not going to be an actor but would pursue science!

Why did you choose to be a dementia researcher?

As an undergraduate, I started out studying chemistry, and then changed to biochemistry. By the end of my degree I was quite interested in the brain, so I spent a summer working in Paris for Nicole LeDouarin who does amazing work on the development of the nervous system. I became fascinated by the brain – what makes us human and how our brains work. It was about halfway through my PhD that I became interested in how the brain goes wrong in disease, when I did some work investigating Huntington’s disease.

My PhD research focussed on the connections between nerve cells, called synapses. We know that disruption of these connections happens early on in diseases like Alzheimer’s and is linked to the decline in memory and thinking skills. So when I was looking for my next step after my PhD, I thought dementia was an area where I could really make a difference – using my knowledge and skills to try to understand how these connections go wrong in Alzheimer’s and whether there are ways to protect them.

What does your research focus on and why is this area important?

My group focuses on these synaptic connections in the brain – in a healthy brain, these connections are what allow you to learn, make new memories and remember. In Alzheimer’s, you start to lose these connections, and the loss of them tracks the progression of the disease closely. Synapses are quite nifty as they can repair themselves, unlike nerve cells which once lost are gone forever. If a connection is disrupted, nerve cells are able to make a new connection elsewhere. If we can figure out what’s going wrong with these connections and prevent or reverse their loss, then we have a real chance of helping people with the disease.

What hope does your work bring to people with dementia?

I’m what is known as a basic lab scientist – my team aren’t the ones searching for new drugs, but instead we focus on the fundamental changes that happen in the brain in disease. The hope is through our work in trying to understand the processes that are going wrong, we can help other teams looking for treatments to be more targeted and have a better chance of coming up with something effective based on this more accurate understanding.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?

Do what you love – find a project that you’re really interested in because it’s so exciting discovering new things but it can also be challenging, so follow something you’re really passionate about.

What is the role of the Grant Review Board and what does it mean to you to be chair?

The Grant Review Board looks at the applications that Alzheimer’s Research UK receives from scientists across the UK and ranks them based on which ones are the best and most scientifically rigorous projects. This ensures the charity is funding the strongest research and using the money raised by supporters in the best way possible. Being Chair of this board is a real honour, and it means I get to help support the scientific strategy of Alzheimer’s Research UK, ensuring that important areas of research and good solid science get funded.

What do you do outside of the lab?

Mostly play with my kids and my dog, and read when I get the chance.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without?

I’m going to take a desert island discs approach on this and assume you’ll let me have my family as a given! But other than that, sci fi novels – I love going off into a different world.

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