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Researcher Spotlight: Prof Jonathan Roiser

30 Nov, 2015

Jonathon_RoiserJonathan Roiser is Professor of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, where he is working on understanding how activity of the brain is linked to depression. He holds a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award and aims to better understand the causes of depression so we can better diagnose and treat mental illness…

What are you working on?

I am a cognitive neuroscientist trying to understand the psychological and brain processes that drive symptoms of depression.

I am especially interested in “interest-activity” symptoms like loss of motivation, fatigue and difficulty in decision making, which are also common in other mental health and neurological disorders.

What does your average day involve?

There is no average day – that’s what makes being a scientist interesting! But most days I will meet with members of my group or collaborators to discuss ongoing studies or analyses, comment on manuscripts on which I am a coauthor, and read manuscripts from other groups as a reviewer or editor.

Depending on the time of year I often plan teaching or mark assignments, and answer student queries. The most enjoyable part of my work is planning new studies, finding out the results of completed studies, and teaching enthusiastic and talented students.

The most boring part is completing tedious administrative tasks.

Why is your work important?

Mental illnesses cause a huge amount of social and economic burden. For example, depression is estimated to cost the UK economy over £10 billion each year, and twice as many people die specifically as a result of suicide in depression than in all road traffic accidents in the UK.

We do have effective treatments for depression, but they fail a surprisingly large proportion of people, and relapse is unfortunately very common. In order to improve the treatment and prevention of mental illnesses, we need to understand their causes.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

Credit: Rowena Dugdale. Wellcome Images

Credit: Rowena Dugdale. Wellcome Images

In terms of societal impact, I hope that my work will help us understand depression better at the level of the brain, and that this will inspire new treatments, or help us to target existing treatments better.

In terms of scientific understanding, I hope that my work will change the way we think about mental illness more broadly. I don’t believe that our current mental health diagnostic system is the right approach because it is based only on symptoms, and not at all mechanisms.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

I got interested in psychology as an undergraduate – I was taught nothing about mental illness at school and had no idea it was so common. Originally I wanted to study biochemistry but when I learned about how neurons work, and in particular how specific brain circuits and chemicals drive thoughts and feelings, I found it absolutely fascinating and switched to psychology.

I still wasn’t really sure I wanted to be a scientist until the first year of my PhD, which was on neurochemistry and depression. My PhD mentors, Barbara Sahakian, Trevor Robbins and Wayne Drevets and the researchers in their groups were huge influences and showed me how exciting doing science can be. I have largely worked in the field of depression ever since.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

MRI scanning Credit: Wellcome Library. London.

MRI scanning
Credit: Wellcome Library. London.

I am in the second year of my Investigator Award (which is five years long), and it has given me the flexibility to take time over my research, to focus and to think carefully about which studies need to be conducted. It sounds strange, but this is an extremely luxurious experience for me!

Other types of research grants are often so short that this isn’t really possible as you have to start thinking about where the next funding is coming from quite soon after you start!

It’s a generous award that has also allowed me to employ some really talented staff to run the studies. I have also had two great PhD students funded through the Wellcome Trust-National Institutes of Health scheme, which has been brilliant as it has opened up new collaborations; for example studies of ketamine in depression (a novel treatment), which I would never be able to conduct myself.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

“Don’t you think the environment is important in mental illness?”

Of course I do! It’s a common misconception that neuroscientists who study mental illness think that everything must be genetic (because they have a “biological” model, as opposed to a “psychological” one). It is incontrovertible that the environment, especially the social environment, has a huge impact on the way the brain functions.

In my view, “biological” and “psychological” explanations of mental illness are simply two sides of the same coin.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

“Are you going to psychoanalyse me?”

Lots of people still think that psychologists, even experimental ones, spend most of their time asking people about their relationships with their mothers! Fortunately, psychology has moved on a long way since Freud.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I was a (not particularly good) competitive table tennis player in local league teams for 20 years.

What keeps you awake at night?

Not much – sometimes our cat defending his territory from intruders!

RS JRWhat’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

My PhD supervisor told me to get used to rejection and not to take it personally – you need a thick skin to be a scientist.

The chain reaction question from our previous spotlit researcher Louise Powell is: “How do you motivate yourself when you feel like your research isn’t progressing as quickly – or as well – as it should?”

My research never goes as quickly as it should! Especially when doing patient studies being behind on recruitment is par for the course. However, having lots of different projects running simultaneously is always helpful for motivation, because normally at least one of them is close to finishing, so you don’t have to worry about the ones that are not there yet. And I know we’ll always get there in the end because I have a brilliant and motivated team of researchers.

If you’d like to find out more about Professor Roiser and his work you can visit the website for his lab, follow him on Twitter as @JonRoiser and read his article “What has neuroscience ever done for us?” in The Psychologist.

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