World Mental Health Day is commemorated this year (2019) under the motto “Connect with life!“
The Canis Majoris Foundation wished to join the initiative promoted by the Confederation of Mental Health Spain because we consider integral treatment of suicide prevention to be vital. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), someone, somewhere in the world commits suicide every 40 seconds. It is a chilling fact and more so considering that it is the 2nd greatest cause of youth mortality. It is necessary that the corresponding authorities put forth a comprehensive plan on suicide prevention that allows us to deal with cases of people with suicidal behavior, their families and suicide survivors.
Here at the Canis Majoris Foundation, we work on the phenomenon of functional diversity and the risk of psychosocial exclusion from an integral and transversal perspective. Our mission is aimed at social integration and the improvement of the quality of life for people who comprise this group through our Animal Assisted Intervention program, training and focusing on research, study, technological development and innovation (R&D) in Neuroscience.
The Elena Pessino Gómez del Campo Neuroscience Laboratory (NEPGC Laboratory) of the Canis Majoris Foundation, led by Dr. Raúl Alelú-Paz, concentrates research on the molecular study of mental illness from a multidisciplinary perspective, including approaches from different fields of knowledge such as Anatomy, Molecular Biology, Psychology or Theoretical Physics.
On this special day, Dr. Ariel Cariaga-Martínez, Laboratory Manager of the NEPGC Laboratory, informs us on the current advances in the Laboratory’s research and the importance of such research in the face of the challenges that we confront in the immediate future in relation to Mental Health:
Could you briefly comment on the projects that are being carried out in the Laboratory and their future plans?
Our laboratory works on what is currently known as the “frontiers of knowledge”: many areas of knowledge and very innovative techniques to solve complex problems which in this case is , mental illness, although our work is based on scientific ideas and hypotheses and therefore we work in different fields.
Among the projects we carry out, we are interested in understanding how the environment (through so-called epigenetic mechanisms) can interact with genes to develop mental illnesses such as obsessive compulsive disorder. In this project we develop reprogramming models of stem cells to neurons to understand this interaction.
Continuing with complex mental illnesses, we are also studying a particular type of neuron located in a brain structure called the Thalamus. It was believed that the function of the Thalamus was to redistribute the information of the senses to the corresponding brain areas, but now we know that it is much more complex and may have implications in the development of diseases such as schizophrenia.
On the other hand, in collaboration with Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma and winner of the Prince of Asturias Award, we are trying to characterize a very particular type of neuron: mirror neurons (which were discovered by Dr. Rizzolatti). We want to understand, in the words of Ramón y Cajal, its structure and its function since, although they intervene in many functions that define us as human (such as the ability to learn by observation or empathy) there is still very little that is known about their structural and molecular characteristics.
Moving on to the field of theoretical physics, we study how the brain is capable of generating a single perception by integrating apparently unrelated visual information. The typical example is optical illusions or drawings generated with spots: once they explain the meaning, we can no longer see these forms. Being able to gather and make sense of this information is vital to our survival and in this sense, we have come up with a possible explanation using quantum physics models and now we want to validate that model in biological reality.
In the approximate future, and in line with our multidisciplinary work, we will be working on a hypothesis that would allow us to predict the sites of tumor metastases. Many tumors have a certain preference to generate metastases in particular anatomical sites, so understanding the mechanisms that allow this preference would allow us to know in advance where there would be new tumor developments and to prepare a therapeutic strategy that helps patients. As metastasis is the leading cause of death, we believe that this knowledge would be a great gain in the prognosis and quality of life of patients.
In short, for those of us who are part of the laboratory it is a privilege to have the support of the Canis Majoris Foundation because it allows us to work and develop innovative and daring ideas from which we believe we will be able to make great advances in the possible very near future. .
What current needs do you think research has in relation to Mental Health?
Although it may not apply only to research in Mental Health, but to research in general, I think we have several shortcomings: some easily remedied and others that require more effort. Of course, financing remains key and remains low, so we would expect some political will and public awareness in regard to such: when we defend public health, which saves so many lives in Spain, we ought not forget that the drugs, as well as the rest of the medical techniques and technologies, are developed by the scientists of each area. Similarly, when we use a mobile phone with increasing performance and better characteristics, we ought to remember that the origin of these came through research and we can extend this situation to many fields, from automotive to food or telecommunications. There are researchers who allow us to communicate better, live longer or more comfortably.
However, I also believe that the research system must start to renew itself and reward ideas and support novelty. This is a gamble, but I am sure that the potential gain greatly, exceeds the risk factor. I think this change will take some time, but we have to move from a paper-centered system to a system focused on generating real and observant knowledge of people’s needs. In that sense, young scientists have a great responsibility and therefore the need for our contribution of self-criticism challenging the culture of “publish or perish” or the lack of reproducibility of scientific results, something that is echoed one of the most prestigious scientific publications in the world: the journal Nature.
What responsibility do the professionals who are dedicated to the study of mental illness have?
As professionals we have a great responsibility, considering that our purpose is to improve the mental health of the general population. Currently, many serious mental illnesses (such as depression) subtract years and quality of life from people and this situation is expected to worsen. Therefore, as professionals we must improve our hypothesis generation and work on new ideas that allow us to go beyond our current knowledge, which often tends to be very divided. Collaboration between professionals and the involvement of civil society, whether with support for research or the various initiatives related to mental health care, will be key to ensuring that the increase in life expectancy or improvements in quality of life that we have experienced in our society, be accompanied by mental health in conditions to allow us to enjoy these achievements.