The Marvellous Mind – An interview with Iris Sommer
Iris Sommer is the Director of Neuroscience and Brain at UMCG. With a degree in medicine from Amsterdam and Public health from Maastricht, Professor Sommer went on to pursue her PhD at University of Utrecht in brain imaging in schizophrenia in 2004. She worked at Utrecht until 2017 and then at UMC Groningen. Professor Sommer was elected as a member of the Young Academy of the KNAW (Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences) and is a member of the Permanent Committee for Large Research Infrastructure at NWO. She published 3 popular science books and over 300 articles on hallucinations, language, cognition, and psychosis.
Good morning, Professor Iris Sommer. You have been appointed as the Director of Neuroscience and Brain. How has your experience been so far?
It has been very good so far, thank you. I have taken over the job from Professor Kremer, who did an excellent job. Everything is in good order and he even finished the mid-term evaluation. I am really taking over a smoothly oiled vehicle, which is nice. I am getting a lot of help from Michiel Hooiveld, who knows the ins and outs. It was a soft landing and an easy take over.
That is great to hear. What do you hope to accomplish as Director of neuroscience?
There are several things, but you have to prioritize. What I would like to start this year is to put extra energy into communication with the general public. I think we have great research institutes and excellent researchers who are doing very interesting things. However, we could spend more time in communicating this with patients, students and the general public in Groningen. I would like to collaborate with them and show the marvellous work that we are doing over here, and the help it might offer in understanding their own brain, diseases and hopefully finding better treatments than we currently have.
Can you tell me about the Marvelous Mind initiative that you have started?
Marvelous Mind was the first initiative taken by a diverse group of brain researchers, students, PhDs and senior researchers that collectively want to reach out to the general public. We have teamed up with Groningen Forum to organize some events. We are aiming at one event per month. Everything regarding the brain and mind. We are starting on 21 January. We chose suicide as the first topic because it is so important in the Netherlands. It is the leading cause of death in the young but not discussed that much. Within the research school, there is quite some activity going on especially from my colleague Andre Aleman. We will be showing a movie called Control. It is about the lead singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis, who was very famous in the 80s, but I think he has been quite forgotten now by your generation. A beautiful movie sadly ends with suicide. I think it would be a good starter for a discussion because I think there are quite a lot of people out there who consider this path and it is important to reach out to them and make them see that this is really the worst option.
You are putting a lot of emphasis in communicating with the general public. What do you think are the challenges in communicating scientific work with them?
Well, I think you have to provide attractive events. We have a lot going on in the city. We have Eurosonic here, and there are so many nice things to do in the city
and we have to compete with them. So, people really need to decide that spending their night talking about science with scientists is better than having a beer in a café or going for a concert. It is going to be challenging to invite a good audience, but we have a very nice group.
Why do you think something like suicide is not widely discussed?
It is a taboo, in all countries. However, it is getting better. In recent years, we have become much more open about psychiatric disorders, especially depression. Suicide is in that area that is even more difficult to discuss. Nevertheless, I think people are becoming more accepting.
Do you think suicide is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, for example, depression?
Not always, but often. Many people who attempt suicide also have a psychiatric disorder. These disorders are often highly treatable. For example, depression is highly treatable. If you are in that situation, it seems like there is no way out. However, there are many ways to treat this and suicide is not a solution. It is important to talk about it and help someone who is depressed because suicide is not the answer.
Your research work mostly revolves around cognitive dissonance and its deficits. What do you think is lacking but necessary in understanding these topics better?
Well, I do not think that much is lacking. What I think we could emphasise is to work trans-diagnostically. Over here, we have expertise in many brain areas like depression, psychosis, Alzheimer’s, etc. We know an awful lot about specific areas. However, I think looking at it trans-diagnostically could benefit us. Brain diseases may have differences but the underlying processes may partly be shared. The immune system of the brain is an important component in so many brain diseases. Other factors like mitochondria, balance between oxidants and scavengers are important too. For example, ERIBA made great progress in the microbiome that is relevant for many brain disorders. Researchers from Alzheimer’s and cell biology professor Harry Kampinga know so much about protein misfolding and its propagation in the brain. This is important in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. If we look at commonalities and not so much at differences, we can really make progress.
However, it is a new paradigm. When you write about new disorders or apply for a grant on more than one disorder, people always ask questions – “how is this possible?” or “how can you put them together?” Still, I do think this is the way forward. If you look at the complaints patients have, they are disease specific but also general that are common among many brain disorders and others like chronic inflammatory disorders. These general complaints, like lower speed of thinking, reduced stress tolerability and low mood, are important in understanding global functionality of patients. Understanding molecular processes of such global complaints, can really lead to new therapies and improve quality of life. Things like sleep and circadian rhythm also affect the brain. First seen in bipolar disorder and consequentially, specialists in this field know a lot about sleep as well. Sleep is important for other brain disorders because disturbed sleep is often a factor that is open for improvement and therapy.
Your current research is on cognitive deficits and the role of immune system to improve treatment and quality of life. Can you tell me some more about that?
I used to specialize in Schizophrenia. Until 2017, I worked in Utrecht and that is where my interest in the immune system began. Through GWAS, we found that the highest genetic association was in the HLA genes, which was not expected. That is when I got interested in the microglia, especially in the adult brain. Microglia activation is susceptible to so many factors like sleep, chronic inflammation, microbiome, food and exercise. It helps in understanding specific pathways on how stress canleadtorelapseofbraindisordersoftenobservedin MS, bipolar disorder and Schizophrenia. It also provides anewwayfortreatments.Youcanmanipulatemicroglia to produce growth factors and inflammatory factors. However, it is delicate because the homeostasis between synaptogenesis and pruning is poorly understood. Manipulating that also seems preliminary. We are initiating a study with probiotics, a mild intervention, where we hope to decrease the permeability of the gut in the intestine, ultimately reducing systematic inflammation. This may benefit patients with psychiatric disorders and increased gut permeability.
You have many responsibilities to handle as a director. How do you strike a balance and prioritize?
I really want to facilitate researchers where I can. For that, I need to know what problems and boundaries there are and how I can help overcome them. I would like to facilitate people’s writing of excellent grants and getting funded, as it is always a limiting step. I am not the best writer and I face a lot of disappointment, but I have experience in this field. We can look at each other’s grants and optimize them. Not sure how I will fulfil this by myself, but it is a start to get our researchers one step closer in their academic pursuit.
In addition, attracting students who are interested in brain research is necessary. Groningen is not always in the picture for students dwelling elsewhere in the Netherlands. I really have to build a reputation that can attract people from other cities. It is popular amongst international students, but we could do more in the Netherlands. There is great research going on here, but young people need to move and leave their hometown to move to the north. That is a limiting factor. It does not help that there is little housing over here.Through Marvellous Mind, we can make young people more enthusiastic about brain research. Expose them to the work at secondary school and get them interested in research. We also need feedback from students because there is a generation gap.
Are there any researchers/role models you look up-to?
I used to be a fan of Professor Jeroen Geurts, who is from Amsterdam University. He is doing excellent research in cognition in MS. He has always done lots of work at communicating with the public. Eric Bodekke is doing a great job with fascinating projects. Of course, Cisca Wijminga is a fantastic researcher, who is leading a team with enthusiastic people reaching for the top. I admire the way in which she leads her group and creates a positive atmosphere.
My last question for you is, do you have any advice for students who want to pursue a career in academics?
Yes, find a field that you are genuinely interested in. It should give you a lot of joy and feel like a hobby. As a result, you will generate good science because you do not mind spending the extra hours. If it is no fun then better try another topic. It has to feel like a discovery job. It has to be very rewarding. Groningen is a great place to explore opportunities because there are good opportunities for PhD grants which is quite rare. I am proud that we have it here and students should make good use of this.
■TEXT BY Namrata Rap (first published on the BCN Newsletter)
■PHOTO BY Petra Oudshoorn www.poufotografie.nl
■MARVELOUS MIND POSTER BY Sander Martens