Nurture over nature? Interview with neuroplasticity researcher Tony Hannan

Professor Tony Hannan neuroplasticity nature nurture

Neuroplasticity research shows we have the ability to slow the onset of even fatal inherited disorders such as Huntington’s disease.

Professor Anthony Hannan is head of the Neural Plasticity Laboratory at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, University of Melbourne.

We first met in the Physiology Department of Oxford University where we were both delving into nature, nurture and neuroscience (Tony far more successfully that me, I might add!!).

Here he talks to me about how his Mum sparked his curiosity in science, and why he thinks we all need to think a little more rationally if we’re to survive as a society.

Tell me about the path that led to you becoming a neuroscientist

My mother got a science degree from Sydney University back in the 1950’s when very few women in Australia did science. She was very interested in the living world, and that made me curious too. I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up, but I do remember watching David Attenborough and that impacted me in terms of wanting to understand biology and behaviour.

That early curiosity attracted me to a science degree at the University of Sydney, and then on to a PhD in Neuroscience. Essentially, it was a stepwise process, driven by curiosity about the world that led me into neuroscience.

What motivates you? What are you most excited or passionate about?

I say to students that doing neuroscience at the start of the 21st century is like doing physics at the start of 20th century – it’s the great frontier.  Darwin would have given his left kidney (or other vital organ!) to have the human genome and the genome of potentially every living species laid out for him.  It’s fantastic to be the first in the world to discover something. This is one of the best times in human history, and I’m so grateful to be part of it.

Now, on to the science! Give me a brief overview of your research.

I run the Neural Plasticity Lab and our focus is on understanding how genes and the environment contribute to the healthy brain and to specific brain disorders.  We’re all dealt our unique ‘genetic deck of cards’ at conception, however we now know that environmental factors throughout our lives combine with genetics to control our risk of developing specific diseases.

When I was in Oxford, we discovered that environmental enrichment delayed Huntington’s disease in a mouse model.  Up until that point, Huntington’s was considered to be 100% genetically determined.

By environmental enrichment I’m referring to housing conditions with increased levels of sensory, cognitive and motor stimulation through interaction with the environment.  In the lab, we compare mice living with standard access to food and water and nesting material, to mice living with access to novelty and complexity such as tunnels, ladders, blocks,  mazes running wheels.

We discovered that giving this increased sensory and cognitive stimulation and physical exercise delayed the onset of Huntington’s disease in mice. We’re now following that finding through to look at the molecules affected by the genetic mutation.

And, more recently we’ve starting to develop mouse models of disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. We’re trying to work out a little more about the complex interactions between genetic make up and the environment, and how this translates into mediating susceptibility to neurological and psychiatric conditions.

Give me a brief overview of what a typical day might involve? What does a neuroscientist *do*?’

Certainly doing biomedical research involves keeping the group funded. In order to keep going as a full-time researcher you have to reapply for funding at least every 3-5 years, if not more frequently. It’s always the dream to have all your funding provided so you don’t have to spend as much time grant writing and instead you could spend a large amount of time doing experiments yourself.

On a typical day (whatever that is!), I make sure that research manuscripts are written and reviewed, but mostly I’m meeting with people in the lab, collaborators, and other scientists.  We frequently talk about the latest data and plan the next experiments. I do a little bit of work outside the institute (e.g. give seminars, serve on international editorial boards, committees, university teaching).

Who funds your research?

Mainly the NHMRC and ARC (federal government), although the Florey Institute could not operate without its generous donors, and infrastructure support from the state government.

Take this opportunity to dispel a myth. As a neuroscientist, what beliefs or misconceptions about the brain/neuroscience really bug you?

Thanks to the Internet, I think there are issues such as climate change and medical research, where there are enormous amounts of information available. Despite all this information, I don’t think people truly understand how science is done.

I’ll draw an analogy with climate change. If a thousand of the world’s top neuroscientists got together on a panel and over a number of years they agreed on certain findings and predictions that they thought were over 95% likely to occur, then as a neuroscientist that would be a compelling finding!

But it seems that we have politicians who will just wave a hand and dismiss thousands of the world’s top scientists.  And point instead to that one person somewhere in the world that disagrees with the finding.

I think many in our society lack understanding about how science is done and what evidence means, often through no fault of their own. Some people are unable to distinguish between one anecdotal finding and a body of evidence supported by a huge amount of data. That bugs me.

As a society if we’re going to survive and thrive, we need to become more rational. To do this we need to improve science education in schools, universities, and for the public. I think that some of the world’s problems could be solved with rational ideas based on a higher general level of science literacy. We need people to be convinced by high quality science and evidence, and skeptical of claims which have no rational basis.

You can find out more about Tony’s research on his lab website here.

And if you want to help support one of his students gather funds to complete her research project, visit this site: 

Some review articles are listed below:

Enhancement of cognitive function in models of brain disease through environmental enrichment and physical activity. 

Mechanisms mediating brain and cognitive reserve: experience-dependent neuroprotection and functional compensation in animal models of neurodegenerative diseases. 

Tandem repeat polymorphisms: modulators of disease susceptibility and candidates for ‘missing heritability.

The neurobiology of brain and cognitive reserve: mental and physical activity as modulators of brain disorders.

Dynamic mutations as digital genetic modulators of brain development, function and dysfunction. 

Enriched environments, experience-dependent plasticity and disorders of the nervous system.

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  1. Chris Temouskos on February 15, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Hello, my name is Chris Temouskos, would love to receive a comment or opinion or idea about my comment. I took myself on a Journey to change how I FEEL, and it worked. I self published a book title: Self Expression. Publisher: Balboa press. I did all this because I had a brain surgery to take a part out, I had to escape the system to change, to get my mind off it to survive. Self Expression is a Story that I don’t mention details, but I show highlights how I plugged back to life. (color, photos, paintings, sculpture, 30pages, story highlights) Every Word Is A Sound, And Sound Creates A Tune, Be Positive With All Words
    And The Tune Does Play… By keeping myself busy on Journey, did change my mind and fixed all issues were medical science could not fix and medical science did not support Journey. Journey supports self inspiration and works.

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