This edition of DRNI's Researcher in Focus is Dr Andrea Kwakowsky, neuroscientist
at the School of Medicine at the University of Galway.
I am a neuroscientist and I have been researching dementia for over a decade. Last year, I moved my lab from New Zealand to Ireland to take up a lectureship in Pharmacology at the University of Galway. My research focuses on signalling systems, their regulation, and the mode of their action. I am particularly interested in GABA, glutamate and oestrogen signalling in normal brain function, and changes associated with age-related pathological conditions such as Alzheimer`s and Huntington’s disease, and Multiple Sclerosis. I am leading an integrated multidisciplinary research that aims to understand the underlying pathology of these disorders and to determine whether manipulation of specific neuronal pathways could be part of an effective treatment. This research established the scientific basis for cell-type-specific modulation of inhibitory and excitatory neurons and neuroinflammatory pathways as potential therapeutic interventions. My ultimate goal is to better understand disease pathology and find novel drug targets and therapeutic strategies.
As a child, I always loved exploring nature with my family and reading science books to understand what I have seen, heard and experienced. From the earliest stages of my career, I have been attracted to studying complicated biochemical and neuronal pathways. The brain is the body's most complex organ with around 86 billion neurons in the human brain. Each neuron communicates with many other neurons to form complex circuits and involves the coordinated action of neurons in many brain regions. Neurodegenerative disorders pose a major health challenge due to the inherent complexity of neuronal networks and their multifactorial nature. The realization of a lack of knowledge about these pathways in the brain of patients with neurodegenerative disorders led me to start exploring this area of research with the hope of a breakthrough treatment for those who are affected by these conditions. Brain research is about pushing the limits, and uncovering the unknown, processes that determine who we are and how we operate; for me, this is the most exciting, challenging and meaningful job that I could imagine and wish for.
We are living in a world that has become more integrated, and innovations spread quickly. I have always been excited about new technologies and applying them. The recent developments in nanotechnology, physics and computer sciences opened some unexpected novel avenues for new discoveries in the field of neuroscience. Now we can record, visualize, and modulate the activity of individual neurons and neuronal networks of freely behaving animals. The human brain structure can be examined at a better resolution and neuronal network activity examined in a very sophisticated way. In addition, multiple types of brain stimulation technologies are emerging that help to understand disease pathology and offer a therapeutic treatment. Developments in genetic mapping allow the identification of gene variants that influence disease susceptibility and can be targeted to design personalized treatments. The application of new technologies and tools is game-changing for neuroscience research.
Dementia places an enormous emotional and financial burden on the affected and their families. Currently, there is no effective treatment to cure, delay, or stop the progression of most neurodegenerative diseases. I am passionate about facilitating direct interaction between researchers and the community, including organisations, people living with dementia, care partners and family members. With increasing numbers of dementia cases, most members of my lab group have family members and friends affected by the disease. Finding treatments and providing support to people with dementia motivates me and the members of my team. I have always been lucky to lead a team of young motivated and talented scientists, work with brilliant mentors and colleagues, and importantly a very supportive community of patients and carers who put so much effort to move the projects forward. Training the next generation of neuroscientists and providing inspiring and quality training to young researchers is something I am very passionate about in an effort to spearhead a better understanding of debilitating diseases of the brain and novel ways to combat them.
Outside work, I like to spend time outdoors with my family. I often jog along the Corrib River and the Salthill Promenade or practise Yoga and Pilates. As a Health and Wellbeing Ambassador, I am involved in promoting a healthy lifestyle at work and often enjoy these activities with my colleagues.