Time To Support Neuroscience In Africa

By Mahmoud Bukar Maina

As a neuroscientist, people often ask me what neuroscientists do and what I, particularly do? Quite often, people who know little about neuroscience usually say 'only brainy people study the brain'. But the truth is, in our present age, it has become almost a necessity for any curious mind to study neuroscience, simply because we are what we are because our brain cells (neurons) are firing in a coordinated manner, once they go aberrant, we go aberrant in our actions and behaviours.

As for those who ask me what I do, I tell them I study one of the most vicious of those diseases that cause brain cells to degenerate and lose their communication and coordination, called Alzheimers disease (AD). AD is a progressive neurodegenerative disease - the most common of dementias, that affects learning and memory, personality, communication skills and many other behavioral functions. When one is affected, one of the common but devastating symptoms he encounters is the loss of memory - the memory of who we are and our family, and without these memories, one loses a sense of his purpose, joy and ultimately becomes empty!

This disease affects both the young and the elderly, though more prevalent in the elderly. It is not aging as commonly thought by some, and unfortunately, it has no cure as of this moment! Every 7 seconds, new case of AD occurs somewhere in the world. About 60% of sufferers in the UK alone goes undiagnosed, commonly due to low public awareness, Doctors knowledge and attitudes and resource within diagnostic services. There is no reliable marker that accurately diagnoses the disease, except looking at the brain sample of sufferers, which unfortunately can only happen when they are dead. Sadly, AD is not 'whites' only disease, it is a general human disease, but there is a growing concern that many cases of this neurodegenerative disease and many of its kind go undiagnosed in Africa, mainly due to poor knowledge about the diseases, lack of adequate facilities for the diagnosis, reliance on traditional beliefs and lack of public awareness.

With millions affected, and expectations that this would reach 100 million by 2015, in an effort to find solutions very quickly, this year's Alzheimers Research UK (ARUK) conference held in Oxford University, UK, attracted over 300 researchers - neuroscientists, biochemists, clinicians, geneticists, molecular and cell biologists, epidemiologists etc. to discuss the progress on AD research; such as possible biomarkers of the disease, genetic, molecular and cellular interactions during the pathogenesis of the disease, the role of other factors like obesity, diet, alcohol, cigarettes, stress and other environmental factors in dementia; discuss other forms of neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. Parkinson's disease, Dementia with Lewy body, Fronto-Temporal Dementia etc.) and how they relate to one another.

Yes, progress is being made; such as a recent discovery of more genes linked to the disease by genome wide association studies (GWAS), the discovery of interacting partners of one of the culprits (amyloid beta) believed to be central in the disease progression, transplant of new normal neurons into an AD mouse brain, gene therapy, and many compounds and drugs have shown positive signs of slowing the disease on cell culture and animal models. Regrettably, no reliable progress is yet defined in humans, and we are even yet to understand the main cause of the disease. However, healthy lifestyle, e.g. healthy diet and exercise, greatly antagonize the disease progression.

As a molecular neuroscientist, great talks by reputable scientists during this conference got me to appreciate a good picture of the clinical presentation of these different neurodegenerative diseases - quite frightening and sympathetic I must confess! This thus propelled me back in time to recollect the memory of people I met back in Nigeria some years ago, who had several signs of neural imbalance, but who and/or whose family believed their witch doctors are in control. I have seen many who were stigmatised because of such imbalance, such as people having epileptic seizures. A mutation in a sodium channel gene, which help in regulating neuronal activity and response by allowing the exchange of ions in neurons can cause such seizures, thus in a society with scientific awareness, these people should never have to feel isolated and condemn. Therefore, we must do science to understand biological processes and find answers to diseases of our region, our time and time to come next! Importantly, success can only come through collaboration.

A collaboration must exist between basic science researchers and clinicians, because basic research decipher cellular and molecular functions and dysfunctions and propose solutions (e.g. drugs and their targets) and clinical research determine the validity and suitability of findings from basic research. Physicists, Mathematicians, Computer scientists and Engineers must also come into this collaboration, because, the challenges are far too much to unravel independently. Mathematicians predict models that simulate neuronal function in networks and consequence of diseases on these networks, and many a times this has informed our laboratory research in neuroscience. We tell physicists and engineers what are our needs are, and they develop tools and equipment that enable us eavesdrop as brain cells communicate. Moreover, such of these collaborations led to the development of a sub-field in neuroscience - brain-computer interface, which enables brain-computer interaction. Along this line, a 2013 study article demonstrated the exchange of brain signals from a rat in America and a rat in Brazil in real time and subsequent behavioural response due to this signal exchange. This would have several implications in the management of diseases, as well as security and intelligence operations, but notwithstanding it demonstrates the significance of interdisciplinary collaboration!

Furthermore, scientific debate must be promoted, especially in Africa to stimulate ideas and scientific interest among the public. During the ARUK conference, I was really fascinated by how reputable scientists debated about which area of research should receive an Alzheimer's Research UK £1 million funding - between area of research aim at discovering the role of genetics on AD and an area that aims to study environmental factors as a way forward to finding solutions to AD. Amazingly fascinating debate, I must confess! Clearly though, both of these research areas require one another, because even though genes code for proteins which regulate processes governing our metabolism, behaviour, susceptibility and response to diseases and emotions for example, they are in turn modified (e.g. through epigenetics) by environmental factors, such as lifestyle - exercise, diet, social behaviours, learning etc.

In light of all these, I felt it was quite timely to advise us to consider a healthy life style if we are to escape from vicious neurodegenerative diseases. Renowned neuroscientists during this conference had emphasized that a healthy lifestyle is an excellent major in combating many neurodegenerative diseases. For my African colleagues, I would like to specifically draw our attention into science and interdisciplinary collaborations. Our governments must avoid corruption and encourage science.

Anyway, I personally believe corruption is an aberration of a neuronal network! Our students must be inspired to discover science and our scientists must direct their research with a calculated goal, not just for the purpose of publishing to get papers for promotion in the academia, which often even add very little to our understanding of science! My simple reason is - WE HAVE THE MOST DIFFICULT TASKS AHEAD OF US. Because, if after decades of funding and research, Europe, America and their likes are yet to solve the mystery of Alzheimer's disease, I can't see how we can solve our scientific challenges (e.g. Nodding disease) in Africa. How long will we wait to get salvaged from our problems? We must learn to improvise, adapt and seek real scientific goals; this has to start now!

The writer is a PhD Neuroscience Student in the Serpell Laboratory, University of Sussex, UK

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