Brain Research

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.



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).

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.

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.

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


The Science of Developing Language Skills

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In this installment dedicated to research in Brain related areas, we sit down with Professor Helen Grech, a speech language pathologist and audiologist, to understand how her recent work is helping identify speech and language impairment in Maltese children.

Prof Helen Grech
Prof Helen Grech

As children, language acquisition comes naturally. By listening to others speak and seeing them act out what it is they’re saying, we learn what ‘a table’ is, how questions are formed, and that figures of speech are almost never literal. Yet what comes naturally to many, may not be that straight-forward to others.

That’s why Professor Helen Grech, who has a professorship in communication therapy, and practises as a speech language pathologist and audiologist, set out to develop and standardise a simple test which can identify speech and language difficulties in Maltese children.

“The patterns of Maltese children when it comes to language development are different to those of children in other countries,” Professor Grech explains. “That’s not only because the language is unique but also because most of our children are exposed to Maltese and English to varying degrees. That’s fantastic, of course, but it also changes things when looking to identify any language-learning difficulties.”

Scientists and researchers have discovered, in fact, that children who are bilingual from infancy, initially develop speech and language skills at a different rate and pattern, but in the long run, they are actually better-equipped at language-learning than their monolingual counterparts.

“This makes a world of difference when assessing a child’s ability and whether or not he or she has any impairments,” continues Professor Grech. “Moreover, even though many children in Malta are bilingual, the truth is that most of them have a primary language (English or Maltese), and that is something that we had to take into consideration as well.

“To give you an example, an English-speaking, three-year-old might have difficulty saying ‘ruler’ (they’d pronounce it as ‘yule’), whereas a Maltese-speaking child would say ‘liga’ to signify ‘riga’. But what happens when you mix both of those together is what we’re concerned with,” she adds.

The standardised ‘Maltese-English Speech Assessment’ (MESA) test, for which parents

can refer children to the speech therapy service at their nearest clinic, is relatively straight forward. Using simple images, narrative comprehension text and a test that checks their proficiency, professionals are able to determine if
a child has any language impairments (ie whether that child’s language skills are the typical or atypical for children of his or her age).

Of course, the test is simple due to all bilingual (1)the work that has gone into it, including collecting data from homes across Malta and Gozo and validating it at clinics all over the island; a process which took over six years to complete was done through the Framework Projects of the European Union 6 and 7.

But, some parents may ask: what happens to children whose impairments are not identified?

“What’s important to remember is that speech and language processing is all cognitively processed by the brain, but it is not necessarily related to brain pathology, in that it is not only a side-effect of a neurological condition, which can be primary or secondary to an underlying condition,” Professor Grech continues.

“When left unidentified, language impairment can have a dramatic effect on a child’s life. From bullying in schools to life-long low self esteem, as well as difficulty in communicating and all the byproducts of that.”

Apart from this, the Department of Communication Therapy within the Faculty of Health Sciences, of which Professor Grech is head, is also working on various other research projects to help the development of vocabulary, auditory processing skills and written language skills in Maltese children, as well as a study related to acquired language skills, for example, following a stroke.

“There is still so much that we need to research and understand to help children and adults with speech impairments, and language-learning difficulties, as well as those who have trouble with auditory processing skills,” she concludes.

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

A man for All Seasons

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In last week’s blog Four Seasons for Brain Research RIDT CEO Wilfred Kenely speaks about the relationship between art and fundraising for research. This week we feature internationally acclaimed violinist Carmine Lauri who will be the soloist for this concert to be held on Sunday 27th March.  Carmine Lauri’s name is synonymous with the violin, but in this interview with Alex Vella Gregory we discover there’s also reel tape and wooden spoons! (Article feature in the Sunday Circle, February 2016)

Carmine LauriIt all started with wooden spoons. Actually, there’s a little bit more than that: wooden spoons and a very musical family. As a tiny tot, Carmine Lauri wanted to join in the weekly music making at home (weekly music making…what a luxury!), and so he picked up two wooden spoons. Most kids would do the obvious thing, and turn every reachable surface into a drum. But instead Carmine Lauri promptly put one spoon under his chin and started fiddling away.

Carmine Lauri needs very little introduction. He is one of the top Maltese musicians of his generation, a violinist who performs regularly with some of the best orchestras around, and a consummate artist whose performances have received great acclaim. But perhaps Carmine Lauri’s best quality is his humanity.

Even though he has years of music making behind him and has made a name for himself abroad, he remains wonderfully down-to-earth. Despite all those years of working in the highest echelons of music-making, he has maintained a fresh approach to music.

People sometimes struggle to understand what the life of a musician is like. True, the thrill and magic of the stage forms an important part of it, but it is a life of great sacrifices. Very often, one is constantly on the go, and has to adapt quickly and constantly to different environments. ‘I lead a very hectic lifestyle, and what I look forward to most is time out at home.’

Being an orchestra leader also has its pressures, and its rewards. An orchestra leader is an important point of reference for the whole orchestra, and a vital connection with the conductor. There is a great responsibility not just on a musical level but also on a human level. On top of that, it’s the orchestra leader who gets all the important (and difficult) violin solos in a piece. It is no easy task, but Lauri is the perfect man for the job, with his blend of musicality, common sense, and a sense of humour.

‘To err is human,’ it has been said. Watching an artist perform on stage can sometimes make us forget that deep down these are human beings like us, and that occasionally things can go wrong. ‘Do things ever go wrong?’ I ask Carmine Lauri. He’s at a loss from where to begin.

‘A fairly recent one was actually my fault. During a performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka with the LSO and Valery Ghiergiev, I happened to be sitting as co-leader on the front desk and during the concert I accidentally turned two pages at once for my colleague who was leading, and we both came in crashing playing loudly for a few bars while the rest of the orchestra were playing simple pizzicato notes!’

There was also the time he was playing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 with the LSO, under Sir Colin Davis’ direction, and he was playing on a Stradivari violin he had just borrowed for a few years. Carmine Lauri got somewhat over-enthusiastic, and the E-string snapped halfway through the performance. Of course, it wasn’t the first time he had changed a violin string mid-performance, but in his haste the peg flew out of the violin neck and landed somewhere in the flowers in front of him. Between frantically searching for the peg, and holding on to the Stradivarius like his life depended on it, he missed the entire first section of the symphony.


Sometimes keeping your playing fresh is extremely difficult. Just think of the poor folks at the Vienna Philharmonic who every year have to play The Blue Danube and the Radetzky March for the New Year’s Day concert. I get nauseated just by watching 10 seconds of it, let alone having to play it every single year. ‘I would not have lasted long in my career if every time I played a Brahms symphony I always played the same fingerings and bowings year after year,’ says Lauri.

So how does he approach a work like Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, ostensibly one of the most performed works in the classical canon? Carmine Lauri will be performing it in Malta on the 27th of March, and I’m curious how he prepares for such a concert. ‘So many interpretations have been presented to the worldwide public, some rather eccentric and I try to find a fair balance whenever I perform them.’ says Lauri. ‘I am not one to experiment to such an extent that I end up destroying what was originally written, and am not too much in favour of such interpretations.’ For Lauri, it’s about finding the right balance between respecting the original and giving it a new lease of life.

With a composer like Vivaldi, that is no easy task. Vivaldi’s music makes great use of repeated patterns and sequential passages, and can very easily sound dull in the wrong hands. Several critics and musicians have had a go at Vivaldi, including Stravinsky who considered him a ‘a dull fellow who could compose the same form so many times over’. Lauri begs to differ. He believes that Vivaldi has a lot to offer, and I would tend to agree with him.

However, composers like Vivaldi, or even specific works like The Four Seasons, tend to eclipse a vast and sadly neglected repertoire. How many of us have heard Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor? Or even Ibert’s Escales? Carmine Lauri also singles out Suk’s Asrael Symphony, a work which Lauri considers ‘one of the most difficult’ he has ever performed.

Classical music is going through an interesting transformation. The digital age has made the dissemination of classical music easier to manage, and has put it on an equal footing with other musical genres in terms of distribution. All the ‘unknown’ works Lauri has mentioned are easily available on YouTube, therefore all you need to do is just log on and click away. There is also a broader definition of classical music, and composers and musicians alike have embraced this diversity. ‘Classical music will always have a future,’ asserts Lauri confidently. ‘It’s rich, it’s a treasure, it’s probably the most understood languages without words.’

True, the rapid developments in music recording technology has revolutionised the way we experience music, and although Carmine Lauri is confident that recordings can never replace live performances, he does have a little music tech confession to make. ‘I have a very strange passion that started since before I could even walk and that’s for reel to reel tape recorders’ confesses Lauri. ‘I have a fascination for them and have collected quite a few of them, some very professional ones and some very vintage and am surrounded by all sorts of different brands of tape at home, probably have around 500 reels of tape and around 11 tape machines.’Poster 4 seasons Carmine Lauri

His interest is not a simple fascination with old machines, but a very active involvement in his hobby. Carmine Lauri often does all the repairs himself, which is both admirable given that classical musicians are not usually associated with music technology, and also rather ironic given that he was then defeated by an 18th century Stradivarius peg mid-performance.

Carmine Lauri is strong advocate of keeping an active healthy mind, and is suspicious of
our dependence on social media. For him, whether he is at work or relaxing at home, keeping mentally active is extremely important. Lauri is therefore honoured and proud to be performing as part of the University of Malta’s  Brain Awareness Campaign. His upcoming Malta engagement is in fact organised by the Research, Innovation and Development Trust (RIDT) within the University, and it is a fundraising concert to help with research funding in mental health issues.

Carmine Lauri plays ‘The Four Seasons’ will be held on Sunday 27th March at 19:30 at St Publius Parish Church Floriana. This concert is supported by APS Bank, ADRC Trust and Studio 7, and all proceeds will go towards brain research, within the UoM. Tickets and further info can be obtained from St James Cavalier, Spazju Kreattiv on 21223200 or click here to purchase online.

The Real Telekinesis

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What would have once seemed like an object straight out of a sci-fi film, is now a device that could help millions. Here, Professor Kenneth P Camilleri gives us an exclusive insight into the Brain-Machine Interface and how Malta is furthering the study.

Prof Ing Kenneth Camilleri

The human body is an amazing machine; one that does so much with very little thought or effort. Yet some of the things that are crucial in shaping and defining our individual reality, are often the things we take for granted.

Think for a second about the fact that you can read this. Your eyes are bending light and creating an image that your brain can read without a second thought. Think, also, of the fact that you are now breathing, thinking, digesting and pumping blood without making much of it. But how often do we stop and think what would happen if that had to stop?

Much like the aforementioned examples, communication and control are two devices most of us use in our daily lives. We pick things up, get dressed, hold a fork and clean ourselves, all this by using our hands which we have the the ability to control through our brain. And what about putting our point across? We talk, type and gesticulate continually.

For some people, however, that is impossible. But a new machine is now set to change all that.

“A Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) gives a person the ability to communicate with and control machines using brain signals instead of peripheral muscles,” explains Professor Kenneth P Camilleri, from the Department of Systems and Control Engineering who, along with his team, has been working on developing new algorithms to extract useful information from the brain signals.

“BMIs allow people with severely restricted mobility to control devices around them, increasing the level of independence and improving their quality of life,” he continues. “Moreover, BMIs may also be used by healthy individuals in various industries, such as in gaming, as an alternative means of communication and control. And they are expected to become ubiquitous in the future, too.”

The way these machines work is quite simple in theory: By acquiring the electrical brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes (such as those evoked by flickering visual stimuli), BMIs can then translate that information into a concrete actions, such as switching on a television set, or typing on a computer.

“We have developed BMIs whereby flickering visual stimuli are associated to commands, and the EEG signals are processed to detect the command associated to the brain pattern,” continues Professor Camilleri. “We have applied our BMI work totechnology_04_1_temp-1335791250-4f9e8e92-620x348 three different practical applications that demonstrate their effectiveness, namely as a Brain-Controlled Music Player (dubbed the ‘Walnut’), a brain-controlled motorised bed, and a brain-controlled keyboard.

“Moreover, Maltese researchers’ experience and growing interest in BMIs provide an opportunity to innovate and break new ground in this area,” he adds. “We have been studying computational methods to process brain signals acquired from the scalp for over 12 years, and we have developed new algorithms that may extract useful information from the brain’s signals.”

Among the many individuals working with Professor Camilleri, are Dr Tracey Camilleri and Dr Owen Falzon, both of whom are contributing to this work on Brain-Machine Interfaces. In addition, Dr Tracey Camilleri also supervised Ms Rosanne Zerafa, who worked on the brain-controlled music player, while Dr Owen Falzon supervised Mr Norbert Gauci on the brain-controlled motorised bed.

As RIDT, we are now trying to get funding for this fantastic research because, as Professor Camilleri puts it, “Projects such as these require a lot of money, particularly for more research resources for this activity and to recruit doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers to work in this area.”

The work now continues, but one thing’s for certain: No one knows what the future of BMIs will hold, but if the past is of any guarantee, we can safely assume that it will be extraordinary.

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 of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).