While at a public meeting in Sheffield recently, I caught up with Dr Jason Berwick. He is one of our newest Interdisciplinary Research Grant holders and will be applying his expertise in brain imaging and nerve cell function to answer important questions in dementia research.
Name and Job title:
Dr Jason Berwick, Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield.
What will your new project focus on?
Nerve cell communication is dependent on the constant delivery of oxygen and glucose to the brain, via blood vessels. Nerve cells are ‘coupled’ to blood vessels, so that supply meets demand. However, it looks like faults in this complex ‘brain plumbing’ can lead to problems with nerve cell function and may play a role in the initial stages of Alzheimer’s.
I want to use a brain scanning technique called functional MRI (fMRI) to look at blood flow in the brain. I think that changes in blood flow could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, but it’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario; do the brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s cause changes to blood-flow or vice versa?
By tackling this problem I want to understand more about the brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s and this will help us find new methods of detection and may also highlight different ways to treat the condition.
What was your early career path?
I have come full circle, as I did my undergraduate degree in Anatomy and Cell Biology right here in this building. The big challenge of my PhD, also at Sheffield, was to refine the technique we were using to get rid of an annoying background brain signal that was masking the important readings from nerve cells that we were most interested in. Funnily enough, that signal turned out to be vasomotion, a term for small fluctuations in blood flow, which I now research. Rather than thinking it’s annoying, now I think it could be incredibly important in several diseases, including Alzheimer’s.
How do you collaborate?
A bit too enthusiastically some would say! I like setting up projects with people I meet once and then tracking them down and convincing them to get involved. But collaboration is so important. I wouldn’t be able to do this new project if it weren’t for people I met at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience, who can teach me and advise about the changes that Alzheimer’s causes in the brain.
Why have you decided to move into dementia research?
I started off by focusing on how nerve cells are coupled to blood vessels. I wanted to understand the basic mechanisms that regulated it. Over time, more and more studies were suggesting that this coupling was altered in brain diseases. So, after meeting an American neurosurgeon at a conference, I managed to convince him to join me to look at this process in epilepsy. This research has been very successful and we have learnt a lot. I now want to apply what I have learnt to address important questions in Alzheimer’s research.
What is the best thing about working as a scientist?
I get paid to do my hobby! I am passionate about science and love my job.
How would you convince someone of the importance of dementia research in one line?
It can affect anyone; grandmas, wives, fathers, and the problem is only getting worse.
What do you do outside of lab?
I have two children, at two months and five years old so I spend my time with them. But I used to play Crown Green Bowles for Cheshire, which I will still be too young for in a couple of decades!
What one thing couldn’t you live without?
My portable DAB radio to listen to Radio 5 in bed. Headphones are a must as my wife wouldn’t be happy!