Leading women in neuroscience
October 14, 2022
This blog post is part of VIB Neuroscience in the spotlight.
The brain, as the saying goes, is the most complex object in the known universe. No wonder there are still many questions about how our brains work in health and disease. To help tackle these questions, neuroscience serves as a key research area for VIB, with centers in Antwerp (VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology) and Leuven (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research and NERF or Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders).
Together, the researchers at these centers cover all levels of brain organization, from genes over molecular pathways to neural circuits and behavior. With world-leading research, they aim to untangle the brain's many complexities to enable a healthy brain and develop new therapies for neuronal diseases.
We spoke to three leading women whose passion for neuroscience led to breakthrough research. Learn what drives them, what they are most proud of in their work, and why they are hopeful in the search for treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.
The allure of the brain
At the VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology, the team of Kristel Sleegers scours reams of genomic data to identify genetic risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. Kristel initially studied medicine but switched to research to get closer to treatments. Kristel: “As a teenager I was already fascinated by the brain. I was particularly interested in cognition and our behaviors and diseases that affect these abilities, because they are so at the core of who we are. Initially I studied medicine – I thought I would become a neurologist or psychiatrist. Then, I started my PhD in the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease, because it brings us to basic understanding of what’s going wrong and how we can find ways of treating it.”
Lucía Chávez Gutiérrez and her team at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research are experts at figuring out why some molecular mechanisms go wrong in Alzheimer's disease. Lucia’s interest in the brain sparked during her Bachelor’s: “I was captured by the complexity of the brain when I worked on a project that studied epilepsy. After that I decided to start a PhD in neuroscience, specifically in endocrinology and proteases. I fell in love with the subject, and I wanted to explore the contribution of proteases to brain function more. From that point, interest in proteases and neuroscience brought me to the topic I currently study.”
At NERF, the lab of Aya Takeoka studies how our brains make us move and how our neurons take us from mind to motion. Aya: “I was always interested in the neuroscience of learning and the plasticity of the nervous system; how our nervous system can change depending on information that it receives from the world. I decided to go to university in the US in a neuroscience department. I just loved doing research. The rest is history.”
Over the course of their career, all three women have achieved many breakthroughs in their fields. Aya finds it difficult to pinpoint her most proud moment but acknowledges her lab’s advances in understanding learning in the spinal cord circuit: “The spinal cord is not just a bunch of cables that connects the brain to the muscles. We developed a method to record from the spinal cord in a living animal while it is learning. A huge advance in the field.”With this technique, her team made significant progress in understanding how neuronal circuits might help motor recovery after a traumatic injury.
Lucía is mostly proud of the insights her research has led to: “I get a lot of satisfaction from the fact that my expertise in biochemistry has contributed to understand fundamental aspects of Alzheimer’s disease. I am very proud of our research and our publications in general.”
Recently, Lucía’s lab found that the molecular composition of beta-amyloid fragments (that form the feared plaques) can provide us with previously unknown information about the likely age of onset in hereditary forms of Alzheimer's disease.
This year, Kristel’s lab completed a genome-wide association study on the largest Alzheimer's patient group to date – as part of an international collaboration – identifying no less than 75 regions of the genome that are associated with Alzheimer's disease. Forty-two of these regions were never before associated with the disease. Kristel: “I am very proud of this breakthrough, because it was an important step in genetic research. We were able to double the amount of genetic risk loci currently known which deepens our insights into the process of how people develop Alzheimer’s disease. This can increase our ability to predict who will develop the disease, which will be particularly relevant when therapies become available.”
A hopeful future
While the road might be long, the professors are hopeful in the search for treatments of neurodegenerative diseases. “We have already made major steps.”, Kristel says, “The research still needs to be developed into therapeutic actions and it is difficult to predict how long that will take, but the groundwork is there.” Lucía agrees: “I am optimistic as well. Critical insights from genetic information need to be translated into mechanisms and from there we will be able to identify relevant targets for therapeutic intervention.”
Aya also looks forward to the future in her field of neurotrauma, saying: “There are many biologically exciting questions I hope my lab gets to study. We want to stay innovative and work on questions that can help patients to walk again and maybe add a sentence or two in a neuroscience textbook.”
Listen to the podcast of the three leading women
If you want to dive deeper into brain health and disease, explore some of our resources, like our Alzheimer's facts series, or keep an eye out for interesting news and events where our researchers share new insights. We also have plenty of open positions for people eager to join us on our multi-faceted mission to unravel the mysteries of our brain.
Visit the webpage to find out more about VIB Neuroscience in the spotlight.