This edition's Researcher in Focus is Dr Nengwei Hu, Assistant Professor in Pharmacology & Therapeutics in Trinity College Dublin. Nengwei took time out of his busy schedule to speak to us about his research and his work.
What is your area of research?
My research delves into how the brain operates in both healthy states and neurological and psychiatric conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease. A key focus is on synaptic transmission and synaptic plasticity - essentially, how neuron communication can be strengthened or weakened persistently.
We are at the forefront of investigating how Alzheimer’s disease, particularly through amyloid ß-protein, and more recently tau protein, impacts synaptic plasticity. The phosphorylation of tau protein is increasingly recognized as a significant factor in its normal and abnormal functions. This makes targeting tau phosphorylation a complex yet promising approach to developing treatments. Thus, differentiating between the normal and disease-related roles of specific phospho-tau forms is critical. This understanding could pave the way for effective immunotherapies that specifically target the pathological forms of phospho-tau.
What made you interested in this area?
Ever since my secondary school days, I have had a fondness for reading, especially books about the brain and mind. These topics are filled with mysteries that have always sparked my curiosity. This curiosity guided me towards pursuing research in neuroscience following my graduation in clinical medicine.
What impact would you like your research to have?
Clinical dementia seriously impairs the lives of over 55 million people worldwide. This figure is expected to reach 78 million in 2030 and a staggering 139 million in 2050. Given that the risk of dementia doubles every five years in the aging population, postponing its onset by just five years could potentially halve its prevalence. I hope our research can contribute to the progress in developing new disease-modifying therapies that should have great potential patient, economic, and societal impact.
Who has helped or inspired you in your area of research?
My mentor Professor Michael Rowan inspires me in my research the most. He is now an Adjunct Professor at Trinity College Dublin, but he works in his office most days.
What current research are you most excited about (your own, or that of others)?
Very recently, anti-Aβ antibodies were approved in the USA to treat Alzheimer’s disease. While the full extent of their clinical benefits remains to be determined, these new therapies confirm the potential of targeting amyloid. This is just the beginning.
The second breakthrough is the development of blood biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease. Because the regenerative capacity of the brain is very limited, any degenerative processes are likely to be extremely difficult to repair. Therefore, there is a compelling argument to initiate any treatment as early as possible in the disease process. For many years, blood-based biomarkers for Alzheimer's disease were thought to be out of reach, but recent findings have shown that they could become a reality.
What do you do when you are not working?
I enjoy family time when I am not working. I like hiking, and cycling with friends and families.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. This is a common saying that originated from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.