Inaugural Lecture of Professor Alicia Hidalgo

Teaching and Learning Building
Thursday 23 June 2022 (16:30-18:00)

Contact Caroline Durbin -

ALICIA HIDALGO & fly -2 sml

This is an in-person event in Lecture Theatre 1, Teaching and Learning Building at the University of Birmingham.

The lecture will also be streamed live via Zoom Webinar. Registration for the webinar is here. 

The changing brain of a fly

The brain is not a computer, it is a biological mush made of water, cells, DNA, and molecules that are made and decay as we go through life. During development, brain cells – neurons and glia - interact to establish intricate neural circuits, driving our behaviour, from wondering about life to doing and running. How do cells know what makes a functional nervous system? What happens to neural circuits as we go through life, do they stay the same or do they change? What could make them change? Structural changes in brain cells and circuits would modify our behaviour - which is what we need to adapt to life challenges, learn and remember from past to improve our future. Structural changes in the brain can explain how the brain works, how we adapt, what characterises the healthy brain and what happens in aging and brain disease. The human nervous system does not regenerate upon injury or disease. However, cells know how to establish and modify neural circuits in development, in adaptation and learning. If we could understand the underlying deep fundamental principles, we should be able to re-awaken and direct this ability of cells to promote regeneration and repair after brain and spinal cord damage, injury or disease. To this aim, is it key to discover molecular mechanisms that can drive structural brain change.

To investigate brain plasticity and regeneration, we use the fruit-fly Drosophila as a model organism, for its powerful genetics and the opportunities it offers to manipulate genes, discover molecular mechanisms and visualise neurons, glia, neural circuits and analyse behaviour. With my team, our findings are a journey from genes and molecular mechanisms to plasticity, regeneration and how experience shapes the brain. Ultimately, Drosophila discoveries expedite research, uncover fundamental principles on how any brain works and contribute to the understanding also of the human brain, in health and disease.

About Professor Alicia Hidalgo

I grew up in Madrid, Spain, and carried out my first degree in Biological Sciences at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid. I obtained my DPhil from the University of Oxford (Madgalen College), on Drosophila developmental genetics. I subsequently obtained a post-doctoral fellowship from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Education to do a post-doctoral period, at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, working on the control of growth and form in Drosophila development. I returned to UK with a Marie Curie Human Capital and Mobility Fellowship to do a second post-doc at the Wellcome/CR-UK Institute, University of Cambridge, working on the functions of glia and pioneer neurons during axon guidance. After this, I was awarded a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellowship to establish my independent research group at the Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge. Here, I established my line of research into neuron-glia interactions during nervous system development. I received an EMBO Young Investigator Award for my achievements as a young group leader. In 2002, I moved to the School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, appointed Senior Lecturer and funded by an MRC Career Establishment Grant, where I consolidated my research into nervous system development using Drosophila. My research has been funded as well as by Wellcome and MRC, also by BBSRC, EU and multiple PhD scholarships. I became Reader in 2012, Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology in 2014, Professor of Neurogenetics in 2019 and founder and Director of the Birmingham Centre for Neurogenetics in 2021.                 

As a Principal Investigator, I pioneered two lines of research: 1) on neurotrophic factors in Drosophila, demonstrating that the ability of cells to adjust their number to connectivity patterns is shared across the animals and is a fundamental principle for building any biological brain. This is key to understand brain plasticity, that is, the ability of the brain to change in response to neuronal activity, like to our environment or experience; or the loss in disease or aging. 2) On nervous system regeneration in the fruit-fly and the ability of glial cells to respond to damage, highlighting their tremendous potential to help us solve brain injury and repair. Altogether, these scientific directions enabled me to address the question of how the brain and nerve cord change throughout life, with life experience, injury or aging, using fruit flies. Recently, I have received a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award to investigate a molecular switch between structural brain plasticity and degeneration.

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