How can we accelerate research into the workings of brain and body?

Researchers are exploring the frontiers of neuroscience and maternal health - uncovering new ways of understanding how our brains and bodies function, whilst benefiting from an innovative transatlantic research partnership.

For all we know about physiology, the human body still holds mysteries for the curious academic adventurer as they explore unchartered territory. Secrets that can, however, be unlocked by the application of data science - whether computational modelling that sheds new light on maternal health; hi-tech neuroimaging techniques that reveal how the brain ages; or molecular-level signatures that help us understand traumatic brain injury.

Magda Chechlacz, Valentina Di Pietro and Justina Žurauskienė are all BRIDGE Fellows working with Birmingham’s partners at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) – advancing our understanding of the different factors that influence the health of our brains and bodies.

Working with partners at Illinois’ renowned Beckman Institute, Dr Chechlacz is researching how variability in the neurochemical, structural and functional organization of the brain impacts on individual differences in cognitive ageing and susceptibility to dementia.

Her work combines cognitive testing with advanced neuroimaging methods and genetic association analysis to provide a detailed mechanistic model of age-related decline in cognitive abilities and mental health problems. This work support research exploring the effects of sleep disruptions on cerebrovascular dysfunctions and accelerated brain ageing.

A Molecular Neuroscientist with considerable expertise of in vitro and in vivo animal models of traumatic brain injury (TBI), Dr Di Pietro leads Birmingham’s research efforts on microRNA signatures in biofluids to diagnose mild and severe TBI in patients.

Also collaborating with the Beckman Institute, Dr Di Pietro’s work sees microRNA signature identified in different bio-fluids of a cohort of concussed athletes, is combined with the most advanced neuroimaging techniques and neurocognitive tests available at Illinois’ Biomedical Imaging Center, in order to improve the diagnosis of concussion.

Dr Di Pietro comments the challenges of diagnosing a mild traumatic brain injury

Dr Žurauskienė’s research focusses on development of new statistical and computational tools that can model complex interactions between components such as genetics, environment and lifestyle - uncovering patterns and trends that can influence maternal health, such as finding better biological markers for pregnancy related diseases.

Working closely with local Public Health Department and scientists at Illinois has given her an unparalleled research opportunity - initiating research projects on maternal health disparities, one of which is recruiting local underserved women from various ethnical and racial backgrounds to study metabolic health disparities and gestational diabetes.

One thing that all three researchers have in common is the advantages gained by partnering with academics at Illinois – both in terms of accelerating the pace on their research and giving them a healthy boost in their academic careers as part of the BRIDGE (BiRmingham-Illinois Partnership for Discovery, EnGagement and Education) Alliance.

International collaboration is the lifeblood of research-led universities and thinking across borders has many advantages for the partners involved – allowing academics to share skills, data and resources as researchers work across borders, enhancing their experience and cross-cultural understanding.

“BRIDGE has proven hugely beneficial for me – providing the opportunity to travel and experience research in different settings. International collaboration has given me space to explore ideas and think differently about how I approach research,” notes Dr Žurauskienė.

“Working alongside international academics has allowed me to gain invaluable experience of initiating a project and generating data – giving me a better understanding of where things can go wrong and how research programmes can be improved.”

Dr Chechlacz added that BRIDGE helped her develop essential research relationships and working with eminent US colleagues, particularly Professor Brad Sutton, had been an inspirational opportunity.

"We’ve recently installed a new Siemens PRISMA 3T MRI scanner at the Centre for Human Brain Health, in Birmingham,” she explains. “Our collaboration with Professor Sutton has benefitted a lot, as it’s the same scanner used at the Beckman Institute.”

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Dr Di Pietro noted that working with colleagues at Illinois, had given her a different professional perspective on research.

“We are searching for novel biomarkers that will help us to better understand and measure the impact of concussion,” she comments. “Staff at the Beckman were amazing and the collaboration has been a successful one - we have already published two papers with another two submitted.”

The three-year BRIDGE Fellowship began in September 2016 with Fellows spending up to 12 months of the Fellowship at Illinois and the remainder at Birmingham. Fellows spend the time conducting high-quality research before assuming an academic lecturer post at Birmingham.

Professor Tim Softley, University of Birmingham Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Transfer said: “In establishing the unique BRIDGE Fellowships, we are developing research collaborations that will both produce outstanding results and help to address the global challenges of our time.

“These are researchers with the potential to reach the top of their field, as well as enhancing both universities’ existing academic strengths and contributing to the growing culture of collaboration and interdisciplinary research that exists at both institutions.”

Applications recently closed for the latest round of BRIDGE Seed Funding, with a strong response from academics in Birmingham and Illinois – particularly in the areas of medicine and engineering. The successful applicants will be announced in late spring.

“The BRIDGE Fellowship Program is an exceptional example of how two institutions can work together to provide the transformative learning experiences that are essential in higher education,” commented Illinois Chancellor Robert J. Jones.

“When we foster opportunities for our faculty and scholars to engage collaboratively with diverse experiences and viewpoints, it not only benefits their careers and research, but also creates truly comprehensive and diverse learning environments on our campuses.”

Banner image: Radiologist overlooks MRI scan at the Centre for Human Brain Health, University of Birmingham.

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