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Caravaggio: Rediscovering the Lost Years

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Keith-SciberrasCaravaggio is nowadays considered one of the most important artists who’ve ever lived… But this has always been the case! Here, Professor Keith Sciberras explains how the University of Malta is at the forefront of Caravaggio research.

From all the artists who ever worked in Malta, few – if any – have managed to match Caravaggio’s success and influence. Considered to be a genius of painting, and an equal to the likes of Raffaello and Botticelli, Caravaggio single-handedly revolutionised the course of art history back in the 17th century with a strikingly powerful realist style, dramatic intensity of settings, and his use of lighting.

“But Caravaggio wasn’t always as respected as he is today,” explains Professor Keith Sciberras, the Head of Department of History of Art at the University of Malta (UoM), and the coordinator of the University’s Caravaggio Studies Programme. “Back in his lifetime, he was admired and disdained in equal measures, and I believe that the fact that the Caravaggio Scholarship [the study of his work] only kicked off about 100 years ago stands testament to that.”

As some of you may know, Caravaggio’s life is often divided into two main periods: his time in Rome, and the later years in Naples, Malta and Sicily. The divide here is done due to his fleeing of Rome following the murder of a young man. “The problem with most studies about Caravaggio is that they’ve almost always focused solely on his early years when he was in Rome, leaving a large chunk of his life and art in the dark,” adds Prof Sciberras.

Professor Sciberras, who is a world authority on the artist, has lectured at many major universities and museums around the world, including the MET in New York, the National Gallery in London, and the Prado in Madrid.

“All across the world there seems to be a surge of interest in the artist’s work – and I could see that judging by how many students attended lectures about the artist, be it in Stockholm, Copenhagen or Frankfurt – and that’s fantastic because, in many ways, the Maltese years are at the centre of Caravaggio’s career. What happened in Malta in 1607 is a brilliant example of the humanist climate of the time, in fact: he was accepted as a Knight of St John even though Pope Clement VIII had issued a death sentence against him after committing murder!”

Now, the UoM has created its Caravaggio Programme to undertake, facilitate and promote MTE5NDg0MDU0OTE0MzAzNTAzresearch on this influential artist by attracting the most important scholars from all over the world, and even brilliant students who are researching his life and art. Through all this, the University has identified a niche area of research that has become internationally successful, and is now acknowledged as one of the leaders in Caravaggio research globally.

The Caravaggio Studies Programme is focusing on the later years of this anti-classist artist, and it has been so successful that scholarly writings about the artist’s life in the late years written before 1999 are now almost obsolete. “We have published so much, uncovered so many new facts, and formulated so many new hypotheses that the whole story has changed,” explains Prof Sciberras.

“As part of this Programme – and on top of the research that’s taking place for the first time anywhere in the world – we’re also organising public lectures for which we invite major lecturers and academics… I think we’ve invited all the major Caravaggio scholars from all over the world, in fact! And we even have a number students studying Caravaggio’s life and work – including one at PhD and another at MA level.

“Moreover, for the first time since Caravaggio’s death, there’s been a concentration of academic energy on the artist’s final years all over the world,” he continues. “It also helped that all this coincided with the 400th anniversary of various things Caravaggio did during his lifetime, including coming to Malta and moving to Rome, which has, in turn, led to an incredible surge in public interest.”

The culmination of this research – at least in terms of what the majority of the public will get to see – will be a documentary about Caravaggio’s life, created using the research that has taken place at the UoM.

“Caravaggio’s work is so powerful, and his life story is as interesting as it gets,” says Prof Sciberras. “There’s so much excitement… The fact that he was the underdog, the fact that he was both the hero and the anti-hero of his own story… There’s murder, there’s celebration, escape, becoming a fugitive, and even being celebrated as a fugitive – it’s a story of climaxes and anti-climaxes. In many ways, he portrays the story of what I call ‘the power of the brush’ (the power the humanities had and still have). His intellectual strength for invention means that the importance of protecting such a creative mind – even when he was morally wrong – was more important than justice; his work was simply more forceful than the blemishes of his lifestyle.”

Michelangelo_Caravaggio_021The research for this documentary involves a myriad of methodologies. Firstly, there is connoisseurship, which is looking at paintings, studying them, and comparing them with the works of others to chart out what he produced and how influential it was. Then there is historical art research, which involves the contextual research from the archives to try to build up the mechanics of patronage and answer questions like: Who where the patrons? And what was the real idea behind their commissions? And, finally, technical studies, where the UoM is studying the material structure of the works (pigments that he used, taking X-rays, stratigraphy [checking the different strata of the paintings] and pentimenti [how the artist changed his mind while painting, which can be seen from X-rays and stratigraphy]).

“The documentary will tell Caravaggio’s story, explain the methodology of research, and reveal all the new things we’ve discovered about him. The documentary, which will air on TVM, will be one of four documentaries about research taking place at the UoM, and it’s incredibly important to note that the humanities play a very significant role with two out of four documentaries: one about underwater archaeology and ours,” Prof Sciberras concludes.

The filming for this documentary, the script for which has been written by Prof Sciberras himself, will begin in the next couple of weeks and will conclude by the end of summer. There is no set date for the airing of this documentary yet, but we’ll be sure to let you know as soon as we do!

You can be part of this fascinating world of research, too, by helping many others achieve their breakthroughs in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).

 

 

 

 

 

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Could an Aspirin a Day keep Cancer at Bay?

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Could it be that the prevention of certain types of cancer, including colorectal cancer, lie in something as simple and as readily-available as aspirin? According to Professor Rena Balzan’s study, it’s highly-likely to be a resounding yes!

Rena BalzanIf Professor Rena Balzan’s name sounds familiar, it’s most probably because you’ve read one of her many published novels and collections of poems, including Il-Ħolma Mibjugħa (The Betrayed Dream), published in 1982, Ilkoll ta’ Nisel Wieħed (Bonds in the Mirror of Time), published in 1987 with a 2nd edition in 1998, and Fiż-Żifna tal-Ibliet (In Tune with City Life), published in 1995. But Rena Balzan is a Renaissance woman whose achievements go far beyond the realm of literature.

Specialising in Genetics at the State University of Milan in Italy, and later on being awarded the PhD degree in Biotechnology/Molecular Biology from Cranfield University, UK, Prof Balzan was one of Malta’s first female researchers – breaking down the stigma revolving around women’s university attendance and their role in sciences and research back in the late 60s and 70s. Even so, it is her latest research that is truly turning heads.

“It has long been known that aspirin can help prevent thrombosis and stroke,” Prof Balzan explains, and sensing our surprise at the revelation continues “but, relatively recently, it was discovered that, yes, an aspirin a day can actually help in the prevention of colorectal cancer and even in other types of tumours.”

Prof Balzan’s involvement in this research is understanding the how and why aspirin cf659b1180d9c9ea7b9bd67f4e81fe1caffects cancer cells – and the most unexpected part is that she is using baker’s yeast (the kind you’d find in most kitchens to make pizza dough or bread) to discover the answer. In fact, her work with yeast goes back a long way, to the time she set up the Yeast Molecular Biology and Biotechnology Laboratory in the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry at the University of Malta.

“Contrary to popular belief, yeast is considered to be a higher organism, not a type of bacterium. In fact, in terms of organisation, yeast cells bear significant resemblance to the way human cells work – so much so, that yeast is also being used in research related to human neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Moreover, the research using yeast is done in vivo [within a living organism] rather than in vitro [vitro is a word derived from the Latin word ‘vitreous’, meaning glass, i.e. in a test-tube]. Therefore, the results are much clearer and data more reliable.”

‘But why aspirin?’ we find ourselves asking her. Turns out, aspirin was one of the first
non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs ever discovered, and its properties extend to causing a type of programmed cell death – called apoptosis – in cancer cells.

Using yeast, Prof Balzan and her team have discovered that cells lacking manganese
superoxide dismutase (an antioxidant usually found in mitochondria – the cell’s energy-generating organelles) can cause this death in cells that, like cancer cells, are sensitive to oxidative stress, but not in normal cells. In other words, this could lead to understanding why aspirin can cause cancer cells (but not normal cells) to die – and, in the future, this study of aspirin could actually lead to the development of more efficacious aspirin-like drugs and novel anti-cancer therapies.

As Prof Balzan explains, it was while Dr Neville Vassallo was doing his M.Phil degree under her mentorship in the late 1990s, that he first decided to use aspirin on yeast cells. “The cells treated with aspirin died [and] this really roused my interest in [the drug],” she told Dr Gianluca Farrugia, one of her main contributors, in an interview for THINK Magazine.

The study has now advanced manifold since those early days, and recent research in long-term aspirin use has shown that the drug can even lower the risk of stomach and oesophageal cancers by almost 50 per cent!

“But the benefits of aspirin may extend beyond just cancer prevention,” Prof Balzan explains. “There have been studies suggesting that daily aspirin intake can also delay or prevent the recurrence or return of common cancers in patients who have already survived from cancer. In fact, at present, there is a very large clinical trial underway in the UK to prove this once and for all. This trial involves about 11,000 survivors of early bowel, oesophageal, prostate, stomach and breast cancers who are being given daily aspirin for five years to see if the drug reduces – significantly or not – the chance of these cancers recurring.”

‘So… people should just start taking an aspirin a day then?’ we query.

aspirin_2945793b“Well, it’s not that simple,” she answers. “It’s important that every person seeks their doctor’s advice and ensures that he or she is not allergic to aspirin and that it won’t affect the results of other medicine they may be on at the time. But, in theory, yes, taking an aspirin a day reduces the risk of certain kinds of cancer drastically.”

This study, which is being financed by the Malta Council for Science and Technology through the R&I Technology Development Programme (Project R&I-2015-001), is definitely one to look out for. And we’ll be keeping an eye out for new developments… So, watch this space!

IMPORTANT: Always consult your doctor before taking any medicine, including aspirin.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research through the Research Trust (RIDT).

 

 

 

Showcasing Brains

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In the second part of the final installment in the series dedicated to brain-related research, neuroscientist Professor Giuseppe Di Giovanni explains the inspiration behind the Malta Neuroscience Network and how it is helping to bring brain-related research to the forefront.

“The human brain is the most complex organ in the known universe. This complexity makes it the last and hardest frontier in medical research, and unravelling the brain’s secrets could change the lives of millions of people of all ages who suffer from neurological and psychological conditions, lesions or addictions.” Professor Giuseppe Di Giovanni

It was a warm afternoon in September 2014 when Professor Giuseppe Di Giovanni first realised that while there were many people interested and working in neuroscience, very few of them communicated between one another. This epiphany came as he was thinking about the Studio 7-produced RIDT and Science and the City documentary, Jien Min Jien, which outlined the research that was taking place at the University of Malta at the time. Professor Di Giovanni was one of those involved in the project, and organised the part about how neuroscience research had grown over the previous 10 years.

As a neuroscientist himself, Professor Di Giovanni has been working on understanding the pathophysiology of the central monoaminergic systems of different neuropsychiatric disorders (which, in layman’s terms, means the way diseases, such as depression, Parkinson’s and Alzehimer’s, affect the brain) for over 20 years. That, as well as his work attracting funding from many international bodies, such as ERUK UK, Physiological Society UK, PON Italy, and various national Maltese bodies (including the MCST R&I 2013 Grant), made him the ideal candidate for it and for what was to come.

“Malta is a small country, therefore collaborations among scientists is of pivotal importance for the scientific development of the nation and the education of our students,” he says. “So I went to Professor Richard Muscat’s [former pro-rector for Research & Innovation at the UoM] office and I said to him, ‘Richard, what if we form a virtual neuroscience institute to bring together all of the neuroscience researchers in Malta?’

“I could see the enthusiasm on his face. In fact, he immediately said ‘Yes’,” he continues. “After that, I started contacting everyone working on neuroscience, and anyone who I thought would be enthusiastic about this proposal to create a network of people, all with different neuroscience specialisms.” Among those people to first support the Malta Neuroscience Network (MNN) was Wilfred Kenely, the CEO of RIDT.

Working together, Professor Di Giovanni and Wilfred Kenely worked on holding the first Malta Brain Awareness Week (BAW), and fundraising which was meant for Professor Di Giovanni’s research on depression and epilepsy, was channeled to the entire research community. That funding will now, after being peer-reviewed, fund the first two projects.

“BAW is the global campaign that aims to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research,” says Professor Di Giovanni. “This global celebration, launched by The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, presents an opportunity to bring attention to advances in brain science and advocate for science funding.  The best part is that activities are limited only by the organisers’ imaginations and include open days at neuroscience labs, exhibitions about the brain, lectures on brain-related topics, social media campaigns, displays at libraries and community centers, and classroom workshops, among others.” But that is just the tip of the iceberg of what the MNN network was set up to do.

The Network aims to encourage and facilitate interdisciplinary research so as to bring together academic members from all the Faculties of the UoM with an interest in the rapidly-growing field of Neuroscience, as well as to promote interdisciplinary dialogue among all those involved in neuroscience.

“But we also want it to go further,” he explains. “The MNN’s role is also to foster research and training in neuroscience at UoM; to sponsor and coordinate seminars by leading neuroscientists from home and abroad; to offer study units in neuroscience that may be included in both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes; to collaborate with local and overseas centres, universities, programmes and individuals with similar purpose and scope; and, just as importantly, to raise public awareness in neuroscience, brain disorders, and mental health through public talks, evening courses, and an annual Brain Awareness Week.”

Although it is still in its infancy, the Network has already been accepted as the 43rd member of the European Neuroscience Societies by FENS – “A pivotal affiliation in the development of neuroscience in Malta,” he says. And it is also collaborating with the Mediterranean Neuroscience Society (of which Professor Di Giovanni is the treasurer).

“The Mediterranean Neuroscience Society was created to support and help strengthen all initiatives that bring together Mediterranean neuroscientists. This has been achieved through schools and biannual meetings that have proven to be highly beneficial, not only for the scientific exchanges, but also in terms of training opportunities for students and young researchers. I am very happy that, after a successful 2015 meeting in Cagliari (Sardinia, Italy), the next meeting will take place in Malta in 2017, with the MNN being involved in its organisation,” he explains.

Rizzolatti Di Giovanni
Prof Rizzolatti & Prof Di Giovanni

Along with Professor Di Giovanni, the MNN is made up of numerous other members, including Professor Helen Grech, Dr George Azzopardi and Professor Mario Valentino, whose research we covered over the past few months. Moreover, Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti, who discovered mirror neurons, and Professor Vincenzo Crunelli from Cardiff University, who is a world-renowned neuroscientist specialising in epilepsy, are also part of the network.

The importance of such a Network cannot be overestimated, however. Going back to the initial quote by Professor Di Giovanni, the brain is our most precious tool – be it for health, problem solving, or the advancement of technology and society. Yet, although many would agree with this, few take the time to truly acknowledge the importance of research related to the brain.

The MNN is now changing that, bringing to the fore the people and the research that is taking place on our island and connecting them to many international channels. And while there is no doubt that there is still a long way to go before the brain becomes a priority – a statement that beggars belief in itself – Professor Di Giovanni (along with the MNN) are definitely on the right track.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research through the Research Trust (RIDT). To join the Malta Neuroscience Network Programme, please fill in this brief online membership application.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofpyAuy-aLo

 

Picking Brains – Part 1

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In a two-part final installment in the series dedicated to brain-related research, neuroscientist and coordinator of the Malta Neuroscience Network, Professor Giuseppe Di Giovanni, tells us why collaborative research and heightened public awareness are crucial to further understanding and curing brain diseases.

di giovanniThere is very little doubt that the brain is an amazing machine capable of doing incredible things in a, seemingly, effortless way… From the way the brain picks up a new language to the way it deciphers the things we see, it works in tandem with every other organ in our body to ensure we can actually exist in this reality.

But, because it’s such a vital tool for our wellbeing, it should come as no surprise that when something goes wrong with the brain, our general health suffers manifold. In fact, as Professor Di Giovanni explains, brain illnesses are among the highest causes of death and disability the world over.

“While 400,000 people die from breast cancer every year, one million people commit suicide. Add death due to the abuse of drugs, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and all the other neurodegenerative disorders, and the numbers skyrocket,” he says.

“Yet, despite the high numbers, social awareness of brain research is low, and mental illness is still perceived as an indulgence, a sign of weakness, or a punishment. For patients, it carries powerful negative attributes in all of their social relations, and that situation must be improved.”

In order to do this, Professor Di Giovanni helped found the Malta Neuroscience Network (MNN) back in 2015. Today, he is still the coordinator of the Board, and the organisation’s aims remain unchanged.

Among many of its goals, MNN hopes to get more neuroscientists and researchers to work together – along with both the media and educators – to raise awareness about the brain’s capabilities and the illnesses that can afflict it. More importantly, however, it also seeks to advance the research we have of the body’s most complex component.

“All people who work in the field of research know that science is needed to generate new knowledge,” he explains. “Science and technology have undergone continuous development over the past 400 years so, as a result, our society today is highly technical and specialised. Nevertheless, scientific knowledge and everything that has to do with scientific culture, especially in terms of brain research, doesn’t always filter down to the public.

“That’s a shame on many accounts,” he continues. “The human brain is the most complex organ in the known universe. This complexity makes it the last and hardest frontier in medical research, and unravelling the brain’s secrets could change the lives of millions of people of all ages who suffer from neurological and psychological conditions, lesions or addictions.

“Moreover, brain diseases can affect anyone. One in three Maltese people – and about one billion people worldwide – will suffer from some form of condition or disease at some point in their lives, which includes autism, multiple sclerosis, depression, and dementia. These are among the 21st century’s biggest challenges in terms of public health too, so we need to develop new ways to cure these conditions, rather than simply treat them.”


Of course, our knowledge of brain-related diseases has advanced greatly, particularly over the last century. Indubitably, this is thanks to researchers all over the world, whose contributions have made conditions like autism, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s treatable or more manageable.

“Even so, further steps are needed to allow researchers to translate these findings into treatments,” adds Professor Di Giovanni. “Basic researchers need to work with clinicians to ensure that these new discoveries within the lab end up at the bedside… In fact, this is the only approach that will allow us to understand the brain and subsequently protect brain health to benefit patients, their families, and health workers… This is the aim of the MNN and such a collaboration is precisely what is needed right now.”

As he explains, we are nowhere near the end of the line, and while the advancements in science and technology are (as Professor Di Giovanni himself points out) ‘promising’, the public’s awareness of such illnesses and their treatments, and the stigma associated with them, still need to be worked on.

The work currently being conducted by various entities within the MNN, and through its work with RIDT, is helping research about the brain leave the laboratories and become part of the public psyche. From the Brain Awareness Week that was held last March to offering study-units in neuroscience at the University of Malta, the race is on to bring the brain to the forefront of research.

“The future of brain health will expand exponentially when cognitive neuroscientists, medical doctors, molecular biologists, neuro-engineers and other interdisciplinary team members come together to discover ways to promote brain performance in health, neurologic injury, psychiatric disturbance and brain disease.

“Fostering collaborations among scientists is the only way to contribute to Malta’s scientific development. Indeed, collaboration is the fastest way to find real solutions that can change lives for all people, today,” he concludes.

Professor Di Giovanni’s run as the coordinator of the MNN Board will come to an end at the end of 2016. Before that happens, however, he is adamant in his mission to bring together as many researchers to work towards this one common goal – understanding the brain.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research through the Research Trust (RIDT).

Taking Over the Universe

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As the University of Malta’s Electronics Systems Engineering Department works on sending the first Maltese satellite into outer space, Dr Ing. Marc Anthony Azzopardi explains the process and the benefits of such an accomplishment.

Dr Ing. Marc Anthony AzzopardiThe frontiers of science and technology are constantly being pushed forward, giving us a better understanding of the world we live in, and better ways of manipulating the elements that make it up. As time goes on, those advancements are taking place more often and at a faster rate than ever before. But where does Malta fit into the great scheme of things?

For anyone who has followed this blog from the beginning, it will come as no surprise when we say that Malta is definitely a player in the world of research and medical innovation. For a country that is a fraction of the size of most European capitals, the potential that is being unlocked is astonishing.

Yet one area that has often been overlooked – most probably because many people assumed we’d have no luck in it – is space and everything related to it, including satellites and space exploration.

But all that is set to change as the University of Malta’s Faculty of Engineering is finally working towards sending the first Maltese satellite to space by 2018!

“The idea came to me while at a conference in Seattle back in 2011,” says Dr Ing. Marc Anthony Azzopardi, a lecturer and researcher within the Electronics Systems Engineering Department of the UoM. “It was there, at the DASC Conference, that I first saw nanosatellites and picosatellites built from little more than a mobile phone motherboard.

“As you can imagine, that is by no means a straight forward thing to do as all components within a satellite need to be able to resist oxidation, intense ionizing radiation, and even severe swings in temperature. In order to ensure that the satellite we’ll be sending can withstand the abnormal (by earthly standards) conditions, we have had to test hundreds of different components under extreme conditions.”

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3D Model of UoMSat1 – the University of Malta’s first Pico-Satellite

The hardware will cost just over EUr 30,000 to complete, so a technology demonstrator (aka prototype) will be sent into space to allow Dr Azzopardi and his team to test the basic systems, and hence propose improvements for more ambitious missions.

The final device, which has been nicknamed the ‘UoMBSAT1’, will also carry a payload (a module housed within the satellite but that works independently), which will be monitoring certain characteristics of the earth’s ionosphere. It’s good to note that the payload is being created by Jonathan Camilleri, a PhD student who is currently working in Birmingham under the expert guidance of Prof. Matthew Angling. This Malta‑Birmingham collaboration is pivotal to the success of the satellite, hence the ‘MB’ in the name of the satellite.

“Jonathan’s project is an Impedance Probe, which will test the properties of the top side of the atmosphere, called the ‘ionosphere’, which is an electrically-charged layer. This layer, which protects us from radiation – literally, without it there would be no life on earth – also affects radio waves, meaning it messes with readings when scientists are conducting radio astronomy [the study of celestial objects at radio frequencies], or when trying to do earth observation from satellites using synthetic aperture radar.”

Through the satellite and the Impedance Probe, Dr Azzopardi and the rest of the team will be testing software to measure the ionosphere in real-time, potentially leading towards a reality in which this could be compensated for. Should this be successful, it would allow for scientists the world over to obtain more accurate data, and take clearer pictures of the earth.

Working on this with Dr Azzopardi is Darren Cachia, the first student to apply for a Master’s degree in Astrionic Systems Engineering at the UoM. Darren’s studies are being sponsored by the Endeavour Scholarship Scheme, which are partly funded by the EU, and his job is to design the top system architecture of the satellite along with the sub-system.

“When designing, there are a lot of things you need to keep in mind,” Darren explains. “You have to set requirements for everyone, whether they’re working on the physical parts of the satellite or on the software.”

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An early mock-up demonstrating the typical size of a Pico-Satellite

Darren’s job, in a nutshell, is to work on the on-board computer system for the UoMBSAT1 and its power supply, as well as the attitude control system that will help the team control the way it’s facing – an important task to ensure it functions properly, and continually gets information about the ionosphere.

“The team is ever changing, however, and we have people coming down from Switzerland, Turkey, France and Croatia this summer to help with the various systems,” continues Dr Azzopardi. “At the moment, aside from all the students working on this project, there are 12 academics – and the total number of people working on this will go up to 30 by the summer.”

For this particular satellite, the Electronics Systems Engineering Department is also working closely with the Universita di Sapienza di Roma, which will be launching its seventh collection of satellites this December.

 

“Once it’s complete, the satellite will be launched from one of the existing spaceports somewhere in the world, most probably the one in Kazakhstan. The satellite, however, is too small to be sent to space by itself, so it will hitchhike a ride there on a larger satellite,” he adds.

Among the many challenges being faced by the UoM in the lead-up to the completion of this satellite, is the fact that, as it stands, it would take the satellite 170 years for it come back to earth. This is mostly due to its size, weight and the velocity it will be travelling at, yet International Space Law states that no satellite should orbit the earth for longer than 25 years.

Even so, Dr Azzopardi and his team are adamant that they want to make this dream a reality, and give Malta a chance to shine even out in the cosmos. Will they succeed? We think so!

Watch the previous Launch of UniSat-6 Nano-Satellite Cluster by GAUSS Srl. in June 2014

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research through the Research Trust (RIDT).

 

 

 

 

The Link Between White Matter & Stroke

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In the third installment dedicated to research in Brain related areas, we chat to Professor Mario Valentino about the Laboratory for the Study of Neurological Disorders’s latest finds, and about how these are ushering in a new era in real-time visualisation of the dynamics in stroke onset for the treatment of strokes.

Mario ValentinoIn 2012, the European Society of Cardiology and the European Heart Network released statistics that placed stroke at number two on the list of the single most common causes of death in Europe. In fact, some 1,100,000 people die from it annually on our continent alone.

But what is a stroke exactly?

“The brain is the most complex system in the universe consisting of 100 billion neurons which are interconnected in a still mysterious way,” explains Professor Mario Valentino, who, upon his return to Malta from stints at the Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research in Germany, and the Department for Neurology at Washington University and the Hope Centre for Neurological Disorders in the USA, set up the Laboratory for the Study of Neurological Disorders here at the University of Malta.

“Electrical signals coursing through this awesome network somehow underlie our perception of the world and our actions within it,” he continues. “Because of all this, the brain is an energy-hungry organ, and despite comprising of only 2% of the body’s weight, the brain consumes more than 20% of our daily energy intake.

When the blood supply to the brain is interrupted or blocked for any reason, the consequences are usually dramatic. Control over movement, perception, speech, and other mental or bodily functions can be impaired, and consciousness itself may be lost. Deterioration continues over hours, or even days, and depends primarily on the severity and the duration of the ischaemia [inadequate blood supply to the brain].

“Despite major advances in prevention and rehabilitation, few neurological injuries are as debilitating as stroke. The disease is currently the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer and the leading cause of long-term disability worldwide; it is similarly devastating in Malta.”

What’s worse is that, the already-staggering numbers are expected to grow in the years to
come. This is mostly due to the enhanced susceptibility to stroke at an older age as a result of an increase in life expectancy.

“The magnitude of the problem on pre-term babies is equally extraordinary and the main cause of cerebral palsy, the most common neurological disorder of infancy,” Professor Valentino adds. “Unfortunately, current options for acute treatment are extremely limited and there is an urgent need for new treatment strategies. After all, fast and timely restoration of blood flow is imperative for recovery after a stroke.”

Over the last few years, Professor Valentino, along with the members of the Laboratory for the Study of Neurological Disorders, has been working on understanding how white matterstroke.4722529_std (matter found in the brain that actively affects the way the brain learns and functions) could actually play a part in strokes.

“Stroke was once considered a disorder of blood vessels, yet growing evidence has led to the realisation that the biological processes underlying stroke are driven by the interaction of neurons, glia [supporting cells of the nervous system], vascular cells and matrix components, which actively participate in the mechanisms of tissue injury and repair,” he says.

“That’s why we have to understand how the injuries are occurring if we are to prevent them from happening, and that’s what driving us to study cell-to-cell interactions in the normal and diseased nervous system.”

For five years, the team has sought to understand not just the properties of individual cells, but also the dynamics of the loss of their interactions during a stroke. To do this, they have set-up a powerful technique for in vivo (occurring in a living organism) imaging that is centred around two-photon microscopy (a fluorescent imaging system that combines the use of a pulsed infra-red laser) that allows them to visualize in real-time the cellular workings of the brain.

“The mastering of two-photon microscopy combined with the use of mouse models whose different cell populations shine in different colors allow for simultaneous multicolor imaging, as well as unlimited number of examinations of the same field of view through a small ‘window’ in the skull. This opens the way to quantitative and correlative analysis of cell distributions and interactions in a truly physiological environment.

“In addition, large amounts of data are collected from a single animal, hence allowing for a reduction in the number of animals engaged in an experimental study and improving the significance of the results.”

As part of this study, Professor Valentino and his team have recently shown that the vulnerability of white matter to stroke varies during development, and that the metabolism of the brain’s wiring revolves around lactate that is provided by Brain_Cortex_Harvardastrocytes, the main supporting cells in the nervous system.”
It is clear that up to 30% of all strokes in humans occur as infarcts deep in the white matter – so much so, that these are what produce specific stroke impairments, including a weakness on one side of the body and cognitive decline. Moreover, white matter has been linked to many other disorders, including dementia and several leucodystrophies in children.

“While the pathophysiology of grey matter [a main component of the central nervous system] in stroke has been intensively studied, much less attention has been focused on the white matter, which comprises half of the volume of the human brain,” says Professor Valentino. “Most fibers in white matter serve to connect local or contralateral brain areas, and there is growing recognition of the potential neurocognitive consequences of white matter lesions.

“It is important to point out that the basic research in this area has been limited because of the difficulty in establishing an animal model of subcortical white matter stroke and the minimal volume of white matter volume in rodents,” he continues. “Yet, since neuronal death is seen as a consequence of the failure of astrocytes to support the metabolic demand of neurons, we have proposed that new efforts should be designed to protect the integrity of astrocytes as an alternative strategy for neuroprotection.” This perspective is centred around their recent finding that astrocytes are more vulnerable to ischaemic injury than previously thought.

All this, Professor Mario Valentino hopes, will develop better stroke therapies and help scientists, researchers and doctors understand how the brain’s vasculature (vascular system), and its interaction with neurons and glia cells, is altered after a stroke.

“It is this knowledge of the intricate dynamics and cross-talk between neurons, glia and the vasculature that is unraveling what causes these cells to die, and which might one day lead us to understand how they could be made to recover,” Professor Valentino concludes.

In other words, this study currently being undertaken at the University of Malta is trying to understand what goes wrong in the brain before, during and after someone experiences a stroke, in the hope of being able to rectify the short- and long-term consequences it has on the patient’s brain and life. And while we may not know the outcome for another couple of years, it’s definitely a very promising start.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research through the Research Trust (RIDT).

 

Digitally-Interpreted Eye Vision

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In the second installment dedicated to research in Brain related areas, we visit Dr George Azzopardi’s office to chat about brain-inspired computer vision and how this will be used to help numerous industries, including medicine and gaming.

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Dr George Azzopardi

The human body is a marvelous machine. It can repair itself when it’s damaged, it can adapt itself to withstand some of the most unforgiving environments in the world, it sweats to keep our body’s temperature at optimal level, and it even warns us when something isn’t functioning properly.

Among the intricate programming that one can find inside our bodies is the brain and vision system, which, through experience, develops into a never-ending encyclopedia that is able to instantaneously recognise things, even if you haven’t seen anything like them before.

If you think of a regular object, such as a clock, and all the varieties of clocks out there, you quickly realise how robust our visual system is. Our brains simply take into consideration a number of visual factors that then allow us to identify a clock even if it’s not round, even it doesn’t have twelve numbers around the edges, and even if it’s melting down the side of a cliff.

But how does our brain do it? How are we able to recognise objects?

“This research started in the early 1960s, when two famous neurophysiologists, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, inserted electrodes in some neurons in the visual cortex, the main area in brain that is responsible for vision, of a cat. They then went on to show different shapes and patterns, and realised that some neurons only fired for certain lines or edges. It was so revolutionary that they won a Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in the 80s!” says Dr George Azzopardi, a lecturer at the Department of Intelligent Computer Systems within the ICT Faculty of the University of Malta.

But what do humans have to do with cats? Aren’t our brains larger and more evolved?

“Well, we cannot perform such experiments on humans, and the visual cortex of cats shares a lot of similarity with that of humans,” he continues.

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Eye and visual cortex nerves

“Their ground-breaking discovery inspired an increasing number of research groups across the globe to conduct further experiments in different parts of the visual cortex of cats and monkeys… Through this on-going research, neurophysiologists discovered that our visual system is a hierarchal architecture that consists of neurons responsible for stimuli of different complexity and that the output of some neurons is the input of other neurons; thus the so-called ‘neural network’.

“It is still a mystery how the collective response of a group of neurons is used by the brain to store in memory and to retrieve from it the names of all the objects that we see. So far, however, neurophysiologists have discovered that the only objects/shapes for which individual neurons are responsible are faces and hands – a trait that might be the result of our evolution.”

What intrigues him most to follow this approach is the fact that the brain is a rather small device compared to the most powerful supercomputers and yet it has a visual system that is much more robust to various conditions. And, armed with the aforementioned knowledge, Dr Azzopardi, as well as many other scientists all around the globe, has been working on designing algorithms that can simulate some properties of this process.

The brain-inspired algorithms that Dr Azzopardi has already introduced in the literature show superior effectiveness in various applications. For instance, one field that can benefit a lot with computer vision techniques is medical diagnosis using different types of images, such as retinal images, mammograms and X-rays, among others. Other fields include security, robotics, and entertainment could also find this research beneficial.

“That’s why all this is worth the struggle, as perfecting it will usher in a whole new era in what computers can be trusted to do, both in the world of medicine and beyond,” Dr Azzopardi explains. “This will be incredibly useful for any problem that requires object recognition, so everything from traffic sign-recognition, such as in cars that can give warning to truck drivers who drive for very long hours, to mechanically sorting out traditional mail, and checking X-Rays in hospital.”

Now, Dr Azzopardi will be part of the Brain Awareness Week, during which he will be giving sessions to students from both Junior College and Saint Aloysius, to show them the basic properties of our visual system and the way this information is being used to build computational models that are accurate and effective.

“I’m also collaborating with five PhD students on this, as it’s quite an advanced level subject, and it even feeds into the huge European project called The Human Brain Project, which is trying to simulate all the properties of the brain, essentially creating artificial intelligence that is just as intelligent and capable as we are.

“Is it possible? I doubt that we will manage this in the next decade, but considering all the innovations that have been spawned by this study, it’s definitely been worth it,” Dr Azzopardi concludes.

While no one knows where this research will take us, it’s safe to say that we are in for some very high-tech and fantastical times!

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. A fund raising concert will be taking place with proceeds going towards brain related research, featuring internationally acclaimed violinist Carmine Lauri in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Please click here for more information on the concert. To book online please click here