David Bartrés-Faz «What is more important for people with genetic variants that put them at risk of Alzheimer’s, physical exercise or good sleep?»

Dr. David Bartrés-Faz is part of the Barcelona Brain Stimulation Laboratory (BBSLab), a group formed by staff from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences of the University of Barcelona that specialises in non-invasive brain stimulation and neuroimaging applied to mental and brain health research.

What does the BBSLab do?

Our group mainly works on the study of ageing focusing on two research areas. The first one deals with the factors involved in ageing from a sociodemographic, psychological and biological point of view, with a strong emphasis on brain neuroimaging, but also studying the impact of exposure to health-promoting lifestyles. The study of all these factors serves to better understand the people who maintain mental and brain health throughout life. Above all, we are trying to understand how those people manage to grow old without suffering from brain diseases that are very prevalent with age, such as dementia, old-age depression, and other diseases. In this regard, we have worked in collaboration with the Guttmann Institute for the last three or four years, monitoring a group of approximately five thousand people to understand the combination of determining factors in people who age better. Our aim is to learn which factors are modifiable and can therefore be incorporated into preventive strategies for the general population to try to minimise the risk of ageing poorly from the point of view of brain health.

We also work on another research line related not only to observation, but also to intervention via non-invasive brain analysis techniques. This is a more experimental line, as part of which we invite smaller groups of people to come to the laboratory for a more exhaustive study using techniques such as transcranial magnetic stimulation and very low intensity electrical stimulation. These stimulation techniques are non-invasive, painless, without side effects and applicable in humans, and allow us to modulate and transiently change the expression of the functionality of brain networks that are involved in plasticity processes, compensation processes in cognitive tasks, etc. The ultimate goal of this research line is to learn how to modulate these networks in order to try to optimise them and, for example, use them during cognitive training and rehabilitation exercises.

How can this research benefit society?

These research lines could result in the transfer to society of preventive and intervention strategies that are much more personalised than those currently available. One of the things we are looking into is lifestyles: physical activity, cognitive activity, socialisation, sleep…. There are a whole series of parameters that we know for a fact are protective of mental health as you get older. So what we have to do now is not only to gather data on these lifestyles, but also to characterise psychological patterns much more exhaustively, and also to characterise biologically what people’s brains are like and which risk genetic variants interact with certain lifestyles. For example, is it more important for people with genetic variants that put them at risk of Alzheimer’s to do physical exercise or to sleep well? In the end, the idea is that, thanks to all this knowledge, when a person goes to the doctor they will receive advice on what they should do to maintain their brain health according to their psychological and biological characteristics; not as a general rule, but something more tailored to the individual’s needs.

What kind of services can you offer to companies and institutions?

We have been using non-invasive brain stimulation techniques for many years, but now we have noticed that there are many groups, especially in Spain, that are starting to use them too, and there is a lack of knowledge about how they can be used, for what purpose and on the basis of what scientific hypotheses. What we want to do is to start offering a consultancy service to research groups, clinical centres, etc., that want to set up a study using these techniques. We can advise them on issues as diverse as what devices are on the market and their characteristics, and how to implement them in their research.

Right now the demand is growing, because it is becoming clear that it is not only interesting to observe the brain through neuroimaging, but that nowadays we can also try to intervene the brain transiently to see how it works. This gives us additional information that we would not have if we were just observing it.

What is the significance of knowledge transfer?

There is no doubt about its significance, as university research centres are the place where new knowledge is generated. There are, however, several challenges at present. First, speed; generating new knowledge is very time-consuming. It takes many years and many experiments, and I think we still have to change the attitude that we academics have, which is sometimes a little conservative. On the other hand, calls for proposals and transfer grants follow a certain pace and the market moves at a different speed.

The second thing I see is that more and more international companies and corporations are doing this work very quickly. Competing with this high level of transfer is difficult, because they invest many millions of dollars on it. However, its importance is paramount, and we scientists are probably not fully aware of the need to do it on a regular basis. This is also somewhat the case with the issue of outreach, as both are areas to which scientists still need to pay more attention.

More about David Bartrés-Faz

What is the most important advancement in history?

What has always had the greatest impact on me, because it established the basis for all of us who work in life sciences, is the discovery of the theory of evolution; the fact that we are organisms that have been adapting to the environment in which we live. And, in fact, as people reach an advanced age, this also has to do with this capacity for adaptation.

A future advancement that scares you

What scares me is how the use of new scientific advancements will be regulated by law; for example, the monitoring of personal information or the development of new devices based on artificial intelligence that can monitor what we do every day. This might seem scary, but it is not the breakthrough itself that is the issue, but rather the use we will be allowed to make of it.

Something you would like to see in the future

The integration of more psychological aspects into what we know about brain health. The research currently being done on protective factors for maintaining brain health is very much focused on biological markers. These are also very important, but I think the psychological part, feeling happy about your life, can also be used and helps you to live better. I think this psychological part still needs to be understood from a neuroscientific point of view. This is not integrated in the field of advanced brain health care, and I would like for us to be able to do it better in the future.

The FBG is…

A foundation that is part of the UB, which supports research staff and is linked to the knowledge transfer and innovation sector.

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