Mara Dierssen: Neurobiology and rock'n'roll
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Surprising to see that such a knowledgeable and brilliant person in a discipline as complex as the neurobiology can at the same time become a whirlwind every time you go on stage with your group of rock. So that's it Mara Dierssen, researcher at the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG).
Your father was a neurosurgeon, does that mean you used to ask yourself questions about how the brain works?
Yes, and my mother was a painter, so in my house there was a mixture of science and creativity. Many times I talked to my father about his work and that made me think a lot about why we are the way we are. As a child I sometimes got excited about an idea I had and then my father told me who had expressed it before me and much better! And that made me think. What will our brains have so that, despite being so different, we have such similar ideas?
What is the capacity of the brain that surprises you the most?
Mental activity in general seems surprising: how is it possible that ideas, emotion or creativity arise from a mass of more or less organized cells? We still don't understand. For now, above all, we find correlations between our activities or mental processes and bioelectric activity in certain brain regions, but we have much to understand the process.
What prevails: the starting abilities or how we treat our brain over the years?
The brain is a dynamic structure. Obviously there is a genetic component, but the environment is very important. Even some processes caused by the environment can be inherited … That mixture of elements is what allows us to be so versatile and complex. In the brain, the connectivity between neurons is produced thanks to the interaction with the environment and, as Ramón y Cajal said: "Man is the sculptor of his brain."
What conclusions obtained in the study of the syndrome of Down Have you been able to extrapolate to people who don't have it?
Many things have been learned, since when you can better understand the system is when it has a disturbance, because it allows you to not only understand the pathology but also to launch and test hypotheses about the normal functioning of the brain. One of the things that interest us most in the study is to capitalize on that knowledge to establish measures to improve the lives of people with Down syndrome and, hopefully, curb the cognitive deterioration caused by age. From the therapeutic point of view, the advance in neuroscientific knowledge is opening possibilities that were previously unimaginable. In fact, a few years ago people told me: "But if that doesn't heal!" And what it is about is to improve the cognitive abilities of these people so that they can be more independent.
Can we do something all citizens?
In general, what is different does not like us because it scares us. I believe that the improvement of the quality of life above all depends on society changing its attitudes. Valuing these people, appreciating their qualities, which are interesting for everyone, and learning from them is essential. We in the laboratory try to amalgamate people with diverse abilities and visions, because diversity is what allows us to move forward.
To what extent is art the ideal territory for this exchange?
Art is probably the discipline that has less corsets and where there is more creative freedom. So it is a very suitable territory for people to appreciate what diversity can bring.
You started the piano career and now you play in a rock band (Perdidos en el Rio) which also allows you to raise funds for research. Why did you choose the music?
My mother was a painter but I had to recognize that my ability with brushes was limited! I always liked the music. In addition to playing the piano, he sang in a baroque music choir. There are studies that reveal that when you sing in a group there is a synchronization of the heart rate and brain activity. So music, in addition to getting excited, forces you to listen to others and synchronize with them. In addition, music is a good vehicle for transmitting science. In From Lost we do concerts, called “des-concerts”, where we talk about science between one song and another…
What is the "Parallel Realities" project?
It is a musical project in which scientists and musicians participate. The lyrics are written by people with different abilities and then between them and we are creating the song. For example, for a letter that talked about violence, we were asked for loud music, for a romantic letter, a song that only had piano, etc.
In an article you published on the blog of CaixaCiencia, you affirm that consuming art is beneficial for the brain, how does this process work?
The biological function of art is something that still surprises us. Many studies reveal that music emerges before language as a means of communication, but it is difficult to explain why we produce and consume music and also so interculturally, because it is present in all cultures. We know that it has beneficial effects on the brain: it acts on cognitive systems facilitating, for example, understanding. It is also known to have a positive impact on people with degenerative diseases and that it is capable of fueling a memory or promoting the production of dopamine, the pleasure hormone. There are many mysteries still to be solved, but each time we know more.
How is a creative brain different from one that is not so much?
Unfortunately, our ability to see differences at the microscopic level in the human brain is limited. At the structural level, only differences are seen in the brains of musicians in the motor and language areas. And there are changes in brain activity, related to cognitive functions such as attention. But for now they are fundamentally correlates.
Some famous artists have disorders of perception and mental processing, what relationship can we establish between mental pathology and creativity?
The truth is that there is a relationship between psychopathology and creativity: people with pathologies have a greater tendency to produce works of art, although we don't know very well why. I remember a musician who said that people compose better when they are depressed or have problems … Some time ago we made an exhibition in which we asked different hospitals for works performed mainly by people with schizophrenia, and they were impressive works from the point of view of emotion they transmitted.
Does disability, or what we understand as such, entail other capabilities?
There are cases of autistic people in which disability in some aspects, especially in social relations, is accompanied by special abilities. This is the case of Daniel Tammet, author of Born on a blue day, because for him "Wednesdays are blue, like number 9". He told me that, as he had problems in social relations, sometimes in the conversations he repeated book dialogues and of course, nobody answered him (laughs). Instead, he was able to recite 22,000 decimal digits of the number pi. He did it at the Oxford Science Museum and many people got excited because, as he says, it has the beauty of "an epic poem."
If for this new decade that begins you could make a wish as to the understanding of the functioning of the brain, what would it be?
I would love to understand the neurobiological mechanisms of memory. In fact, we are working on a line that seems very promising, which consists in thinking based on neural networks and not so much at the molecular level. What happens in the brain when we remember and what happens when we forget? I believe that new technologies are opening us with very interesting possibilities to play with the system and see where things are going.