Renewed fight against brain disease

The Research Council of Norway (NFR) recently launched the final framework for a new virtual and national centre for biotechnology – the Norwegian Centre for Digital Life (DLN) – which will maximise the utilisation of biotechnology.

Interdisciplinary focus

NMBU is involved in three out of six large-scale research projects that will be carried out under the auspices of the centre. The projects will each receive funding totalling 200 million Norwegian kroner over five years.

One of these projects is "DigiBrain: From genes to brain function in health and disease".

The project will apply a strongly interdisciplinary approach to research a more holistic understanding of the brain’s function, which can help us develop new drugs for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Gaute Einevoll

Professor Gaute Einevoll.

Gisle Bjørneby
"To increase the possibility of identifying efficient cures, current brain research must learn from research methods in other disciplines. We should, for example, utilise the effective interaction between experiments and mathematical modelling that has given us computers and mobile telephones," the professors Gaute Einevoll and Ole Andreas Andreassen wrote in an opinion piece for NRK Ytring this summer.

Professor Einevoll, affiliated with both NMBU's Department of Mathematical Sciences and Technology (IMT) and University of Oslo (UIO) and Andreassen, Head of NORMENT and Professor of Medicine (UIO) will both be working on the new DigiBrain research project, and Einevoll says that this article describes the challenges that DigiBrain will be working on.

Brain research "with both hands"

"In this project, experiments and models will work together very closely, we will have a 'two-handed' collaboration between those conducting the experiments (the one hand) and model developers who collate the findings through mathematical formulas and equations (the other hand)," Einevoll explains. More detailed information can be read on the projects website: DigiBrain: From genes to brain function in health and disease.

One of the researchers who will contribute extensive experience and expertise with regard to experiments in the project is Finn-Arne Weltzien, a professor in NMBU's Department of Basic Sciences and Aquatic Medicine (BASAM).

"Complex brain functions are very difficult to study using an experimental approach only and the combination of experiments and modelling is therefore invaluable," Weltzien says.

He leads a research group that has been working in particular on experimental cellular and molecular biology to investigate how individual cells receive and process signals from other cells and tissue. For this work he predominantly uses the medaka fish as the animal research model. Medaka and zebra fish are also increasingly used as models in human medical research as they have certain practical advantages over rodents and because basic physiological mechanisms are generally surprisingly similar between fish and mammals.

Hjernen - en avansert statistisk maskin.

The brain - an advanced statistical machine.


Discipline-oriented research no longer sufficient

The DigiBrain project proposal states: "In spite of enormous research efforts there is still no available cure for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s dementia or common psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Furthermore, large pharmaceutical companies have, in recent years, reduced their research on brain disorders as a result of several unsuccessful and expensive attempts to develop new drugs for various brain diseases.

"Future development of new drugs will require a new approach for an improved understanding of the mechanisms of disease, especially the link between microscopic (genetic/molecular) and macroscopic (the entire brain/behaviour) scales. Taking the strong Norwegian traditions and environments within fields such as neuroscience and computational physics as a starting point, DigiBrain has been tailored to overcome these challenges.”

"I think it is very sensible to accept the consequences of discipline-oriented research no longer being sufficient to resolve the major challenges we currently face," Einevoll says.

Seeking to break down disciplinary barriers

This point is further emphasised in the DigiBrain project proposal:

"DigiBrain is an excellent match for the National Centre for Digital Life’s (DLN) vision to break traditional discipline boundaries to achieve an approach that integrates advanced experimental biology and computational fields in order to identify the mechanisms of disease and move towards personalised treatment of disease.

"As stated by DLN: Knowledge of the interaction between genes, molecular biology and physiology is crucial for insight into the mechanisms of disease and new treatments. DigiBrain solves these challenges with a closely integrated interdisciplinary programme combining medicine, biotechnology, mathematical and physical sciences and pharma to understand the mechanisms of serious mental illness, improve diagnostics and uncover new medical goals."

Students also involved

"At IMT we already have several students and researchers working on subjects that are relevant to DigiBrain, and more will be added now that we are receiving funds from DigiBrain," Einevoll explains.

Professor Finn-Arne Weltzien

Professor Finn-Arne Weltzien

At Basam, Weltzien's group is preparing to install new equipment to allow for advanced studies on the membrane characteristics of individual cells and intracellular signalling.

"The timing is perfect in relation to the commencement of DigiBrain – this equipment will allow us to produce high-quality data that will benefit Einevoll's model developers," says Weltzien proudly.

As soon as January, a master’s student will begin working on a thesis spanning both IMT and Basam's expertise in the project.

"In respect to both innovation and science, experts talking together across research disciplines provide stronger results," says the dean of NMBU's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Biosciences, Øystein Lie, who coordinated NMBU's efforts with the DLN steering committee.

Published 15. December 2015 - 11:32 - Updated 23. May 2017 - 19:16