Prof Giuseppe di Giovanni
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.
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.
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.
There 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).