Dr George Azzopardi

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.





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