Dementia Research Leaders: Francesco Tamagnini
Introducing Francesco Tamagnini, Alzheimer's Society Junior Fellow. He is part of our Dementia Research Leaders programme that supports people from biomedical, clinical and social science backgrounds.
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What does your project involve?
My project involves recording the electrical activity of brain cells called neurons from a brain area responsible for memory and learning, called the hippocampus. The recordings are performed on sections of brain tissue from mice that show symptoms of frontotemporal dementia. These mice have tangles of a protein called tau in their brains, which is a hallmark of both frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer's disease. I record the cells' activity when the mice are at different ages, so I can find out how the condition affects the electrical activity of hippocampal neurons over time.
Tell us a little about your career so far
I did my undergraduate studies in Pharmaceutical biotechnologies, from 2000-2006 and my PhD in Neurophysiology from 2008-2011, both in Bologna, Italy. During the PhD, I had the chance to run some experiments on how problems with brain cells can affect visual recognition memory in mice. It was my first exposure to the topic of dementia, I found it interesting and I decided that this is where I wanted to focus my research career.
In 2009 I moved to the University of Bristol, for a 6 month collaboration with Prof Zafar Bashir; 6 months extended to a year and, after my graduation, I was offered a post-doctoral position with Prof Andy Randall at the same university to study altered electrical activity in the brain cells of mice with Alzheimer's disease. In 2014 the lab moved to Exeter. In April 2015, after the end of my first post-doctoral position, I spent 6 months at the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly to learn new techniques, including advanced visual microscopy. Later that year, I received a junior fellowship from Alzheimer's Society to continue my work.
What do you think is the most interesting/exciting part of your project?
The technique that I use to record brain cell activity is called electrophysiology, and it is awesome! I still struggle with the idea that we are able to record the electrical activity of one single nerve cell in a complex network from the brain. You need to breathe mid-sentence to say it all. It is one of those things that only 100 years ago might have sounded like black magic to most of humans on Earth. I feel a sense of awe and wonder in front of the thrill of discovery, the knowledge that comes from living the science life, the ability to use state-of-the-art technologies.
These things apart, I think my project's most interesting part is that electrical alterations in Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia are still poorly understood. For now, we know that people with dementia have increased risk of developing epilepsy, but we don't really know why.
One of my goals is to find out whether the altered activity of individual neurons in models of Alzheimer's disease is related to problems in the electrical activity of neurons of entire parts of the brain, which can lead to seizures. Then I aim to find out how this can relate to problems with memory and thinking.
How will your project help people affected by dementia?
If we manage to show that cognitive decline is linked to causes of and alterations of electrical activities in single cells, we may be able to identify new targets for treatment of Alzheimer's disease. We may also be able to find a new tool for the early and easier diagnosis of dementia.
How is your project going?
What has been your career highlight so far?
Well, being awarded a fellowship by the Alzheimer's Society felt very nice and I consider it a great career achievement.
In addition, I think the collaboration I am starting with the hospital and University of San Marino for the clinical study of electrical alterations in a sample of people from the Republic of San Marino would be the next big step, as I think it will allow me to shift my research into a more translatable frame.
What is the most exciting piece of dementia research that you've heard about recently?
I am very interested in the process of tau protein spreading through the brain of people with Alzheimer's disease. In particular, I would like to better understand how tau is transported from one cell to another via the synapse (a specialized structure normally used for neuronal cells to talk to each other). This could be at the base of the spread of altered neuronal function and brain cell death from one brain area to another, resulting in the gradual behavioural changes and memory loss seen in dementia.
In addition, there's a type of treatment being tested called 'amyloid-beta scavengers': notwithstanding some discouraging recent news, they might still be effective in preventing dementia progression, if given early enough to people in the early stages of the disease. I believe it is definitely worth a try: now more than ever is important to multiply our efforts in trying to address this disorder.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself
I am a citizen of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino; there are only 30,000 of us in the world. I also like the study of philosophy, which I find absolutely central, both for a better understanding of neuroscience and for aiding us in deciding novel research paths. For example, consider the 2015 Nobel Prize awarded to John O'Keefe, Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser for their studies on 'the neural correlates of space representation': with time and causality, space has been described by Immanuel Kant as one of the innate categories of understanding. I find it fascinating.
I have also developed a secret recipe for piadina (a flat bread typical of Romagna's culinary tradition).