Prof Helen Grech

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.



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