Minds at work

Three VIB research centers study the enigmatic organ that is our brain

This blog post is part of VIB Neuroscience in the spotlight.

The human brain has about 100 billion neurons making some 100 trillion connections. Together, this network of firing cells allows us to think, feel and experience the world around us.

Considered by some as the last frontier of human biology, questions about how our brains develop, function, or deteriorate due to old age and disease, still vastly outnumber the answers we have today. Yet, mental and neurological disorders affect hundreds of millions of people across the globe and are the leading cause of lost healthy life years.

This lack of knowledge is the main driver for many of the more than 500 VIB scientists across 25 labs, three research centers, and two cities who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge, helping us understand the wiring and workings of this complex but wonderful organ.

From genes to function to therapy

We start our journey in Antwerp, where a diverse and interdisciplinary group of researchers zooms in on the molecular players defining brain health.

Scientists at the VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology bridge advanced gene discovery and translational research to understand and ultimately treat neurological disorders. From Alzheimer’s to neuromuscular disorders and from computational biology to inflammatory processes in the brain, the Antwerp teams bundle a strong and continuously developing set of technologies to map the mechanisms of neurological disorders.

Rosa Rademakers has been directing the Center since 2019 and is on a mission to put its world-class expertise in genetics to work to help patients. “While each of our six different labs has its unique focus and expertise, our collective mission is to enhance the molecular understanding of complex neurodegenerative diseases, finding new inroads for effective treatments.”

Professor Rosa Rademakers, groepsleider bij het ​ VIB-UAntwerpen Centrum voor Moleculaire Neurologie
Professor Rosa Rademakers, groepsleider bij het ​ VIB-UAntwerpen Centrum voor Moleculaire Neurologie

Rademakers’ own focus is on the genetics of frontotemporal dementia, a type of dementia that hits patients early in life. She identified several genes that can cause it or increase risk to develop it.

“The field of genetics continues to evolve,” explains Rademakers. “Today it is all about handling huge data sets, looking for risk factors and variants that can explain why someone does or doesn’t develop disease. But our work doesn’t stop there. If we want to find promising therapeutic inroads, we need to translate our genetic insights into molecular disease mechanisms.”

Three recent stories from the VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology:

* New protein function could explain cause of neurological disease

* A million euros for research into a rare form of dementia

* Digging for brain disease biomarkers with innovative proteomics

Understanding the brain, curing disease

‘Mechanism’ is a key word in the research mission of the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research, directed by Patrik Verstreken. In the center, over a dozen groups, supported by 10 technology expert units, study the molecular and cellular underpinnings of the developing, functioning, and degenerating brain.

This focus is not coincidental, stresses Verstreken: “We have about a 50-50 split between more basic neurobiology and clearly disease-oriented neuroscientific research. The two go hand in hand: we can’t understand how things go wrong if we don’t understand how they develop and work in the first place.”. The groups study human neurodevelopment and neurodevelopmental conditions with experimental models in the lab that recapitulate devastating neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and ALS.

Professor Patrik Verstreken, director of the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research
Professor Patrik Verstreken, director of the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research

As the neuroscience field has been a notoriously difficult position, with lots of failed trials and pharmaceutical companies having scaled back investments, Verstreken is particularly proud of the research center’s record when it comes excellent science translating into tech transfer.

“Thanks to targeted support from VIB, we have been tremendously successful in pushing our findings from the lab to the next phase—with the foundation of four different start-ups in recent years we're contributing to an exciting tech valley in Flanders. In the end, this makes all our scientific output matter: impact for society.”

Watch the 360° tour of the center

Three recent stories from the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease research:

* Scientists shed light on what makes human neurons function differently from those of other animals

* From code to control: scientists use AI to craft synthetic DNA

* Fruit flies provide insights into the hidden world of sleep


Unraveling brain circuits

At the same university and city, a third group of VIB researchers is united behind a complementary mission toward understanding the brain. NERF (NeuroElectronics Research Flanders) combines expertise in systems neuroscience and neuro-engineering to understand and restore nervous system function.

Six teams all work at the intersection of electronics, engineering and biology to accelerate brain research, explains NERF’s director Sebastian Haesler: “We address fundamental questions in neuroscience, combining technologies from biology, physics, engineering & computer science. We also develop new tools that can help us monitor and manipulate brain circuits with high spatial and temporal resolution.”

Professor Sebastian Haesler, director of NERF (empowered by imec, KU Leuven, and VIB)
Professor Sebastian Haesler, director of NERF (empowered by imec, KU Leuven, and VIB)

One of the most successful examples of these new tools are Neuropixels: ultra-thin brain probes to record the activity of thousands of individual neurons simultaneously. Their development was only possible through a large international collaboration, a joint effort from leading neuroscientists across the globe, including those at NERF.

“The tools we (help) develop are a means to an end: we want to understand how neuronal circuits are built, how they perform the computations underlying perception, memory, thought and behavior, and how their dysfunction leads to disease. We try to understand how and why humans and other animals are wired to respond to danger, to novelty… to recognize, remember and act upon what we see, smell or feel. When it comes down to it, how we go from electrical signals in our brain to purposeful behavior remains one of the biggest scientific mysteries.”

Three recent stories from NeuroElectronics Research Flanders:

* New findings reveal the origin of spatial organization in the mouse superior colliculus

* Clearing obstacles on the road to recovery

* Can brain ultrasounds help diagnose and treat vision problems in children?


More than the brain

Puzzling and captivating as it is, let’s not forget the brain is just one part of our nervous system. Via the spinal cord, our nervous system extends all the way to the most distant extensions of our body, innervating muscles and collecting sensory information even from our fingertips and toes.

Research in all three of VIB’s neuroscience centers encompasses different aspects of how these more distant processes are either guided by or fed back to the brain. From understanding how we sense temperature or pain, to studying spinal cord injury, or diseases caused by neuronal defects even further down the line, such as ALS—where the motor neurons innervating our muscles waste away—or Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease—damaging both motor and sensory neurons.

The three VIB neuroscience centers study different ​ and overlapping aspects of the processes that are involved in neurodegenerative diseases
The three VIB neuroscience centers study different ​ and overlapping aspects of the processes that are involved in neurodegenerative diseases

Building bridges

With such a broad range of neuroscientific expertise, no challenge is too big, no research question too obscure. Scientists at the three centers interact closely: a joint seminar series enables all researchers to stay up to speed with the latest results from labs in other centers, and a dedicated collaborative program will expand and intensify the many interactions that already exist between the different groups, like the collaborative science program. This benefits not only the research itself but also the career development of the many trainees in the different centers, who can tap into a wide array of technologies and experience.

Use it or lose it

While so much remains to be uncovered, what can any of us do today to help keep our brains healthy? There is a huge base of evidence that a healthy lifestyle can decrease your risk of developing a variety of brain disorders: exercise, a balanced diet, sleep, and rest (avoid stress!)—added bonus: it is good for your heart too. Other than that: keep your mind active and stay connected with others.

Learn more

Listen to the podcast with Rosa, Patrik, and Sebastian where they talk about the future of VIB Neuroscience.

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.

India Jane Wise

India Jane Wise

Science Communications Expert, VIB


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