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In this issue of Lab Talk, we talk to Professor Peter Brown, Director of the recently opened Medical Research Council Brain Network Dynamics Unit (BNDU) at the University of Oxford and Professor of Experimental Neurology in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences.

Extracted from Issue 22, June 2015 OxfordMedSci News.

Tell us a little about the work in the BNDU? What are your goals?

The Medical Research Council Brain Network Dynamics Unit (BNDU) opened in April this year and brings together complementary research groups in the Department of Pharmacology and Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences (NDCN). Our goal is to understand and exploit the moment-to-moment interactions between nerve cells that are critical for brain functions, with a special focus on the brain circuits underlying movement and memory. To achieve this we have complementary experimental, computational and clinical neuroscience research programmes.

Why do you think this is important?

By focussing on how neural interactions change from one moment to the next we aim to develop and deliver novel therapies that specifically target the disordered communication between nerve cells and nerve circuits lying at the heart of many brain diseases. The interventions we hope to develop in the future will both simultaneously read out aberrant brain activity and correct it by stimulating or inhibiting key neural elements.

The unit brings together researchers from the old MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit and NDCN. What’s your thinking behind this?

The MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit was world-class in its exploration of how and which nerve cells interact with one another during information processing. This knowledge and the skills developed are essential if we are now to begin to understand how the dynamic interaction between nerve cells and circuits becomes deranged in diseases of the brain. Also critical, though, is determining which interactions at the microcircuit level actually determine behaviour, whether normal or pathological, and taking the necessary steps to scale up from the microcircuit level in small animal models so as to be able to identify those key mechanisms and interventions that might prove useful in patients. Thus the new Unit also contains clinical and computational modelling programmes housed in the NDCN that facilitate this scaling up of insights and the early testing of candidate interventions. The integration of these diverse and multidisciplinary strands in to the new unit has gone well, now that the long process of evaluation required to establish and fund the unit is over.

How did you get to where you are today?

Luck and the conviction that the precisely timed and coordinated interactions between nerve cells are the final common pathway by which behaviour and disease symptoms are expressed, so that directly and intelligently interacting with these processes should lead to new insights and treatments. Oh, and more luck!

What lessons have you learnt?

That’s easy - everything takes much longer than you expect and you know even less than you thought.

How do you see your field developing in the next ten years?

Relatively few novel medications have been developed for the treatment of brain disease over the last decade, with some elements of the drug industry considering brain disease to be too ‘hard’ a problem and electing to invest in drug development in other body systems. However, recent progress in the understanding and explanation of the circuit mechanisms underlying behaviour as derived from animal studies provides an unparalleled opportunity for developing novel therapeutic approaches. In tandem there have been tremendous technical advances that enable the imaging and control of the interactions between nerve cells from moment to moment. The challenge now is to define what goes wrong with these interactions to cause symptoms so that we can use electrical and optogenetic approaches to react to and right aberrant interactions. Sounds too ambitious? Remember that brain pacemakers are already proving a tractable and effective therapy in several neurological and psychiatric diseases, so that what we are really talking about is refining the control that brain pacemakers afford, so that stimulation is targeted to the precise circuit dysfunctions expressed at any given moment. This should make them far more effective, efficient and selective.

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