Research scientist, author and broadcaster, Baroness Susan Greenfield is among many things the CEO of Neuro Bio, a biotech company founded in 2013. Her research on consciousness and neuroplasticity, along with neurodegeneration particularly relating to Alzheimer’s Disease, provides a narrative explanation as to why and how we develop certain neurological symptoms. In her research she hopes to be able to target the chemical that causes Alzheimer’s through routine screening, that in turn will allow the patient to be treated before any symptoms even arise.
Where many large pharma companies have had to abandon their research, Neuro Bio and Susan Greenfield’s team continue forward in their research, and hopefully a bright future for all who may be at risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases will result from their findings.
As a scientist, your work focuses on the physiology of the brain, with a strong focus on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s; both diseases where new and truly groundbreaking treatments are yet to come. Especially for Alzheimer’s, several of the big pharma companies have had to abandon seemingly very promising projects, as the clinical results in the end did not deliver the hoped for results. This lack of results reflect, I suppose, that the physiology of the brain is very complex. Is it this complexity, which really drives you in your research about the brain?
There are three reasons to explain this.
The first is that typically the problem – the neurodegeneration or the start of the gradual loss of brain cells – commences 10-20 years before you get the symptoms. This means you won’t know you have it and it’s only when it spreads to the more sophisticated parts of the brain that you start to see people with memory impairments and so on. That’s then closing the door after the horse has bolted, but what we really need to do is be aware that the problem has started in order to intercept it straight away.
The second reason is that people are very hung up on what they see as the traditional approach in their research, but you won’t get a different result from repeating the same process. There’s something called amyloid in the brain, and most of the drugs that failed have been ones that targeted this amyloid. It’s something you see as an abnormality in the brain, but it can also occur in healthy people, and it only comes on later. So, you can’t really use that as your primary justification because it’s a symptom rather than a cause, and what you need to know is the cause.
The third reason is that no one has come up with a story or a narrative as to why cells die the way they do in Alzheimer’s disease. And until you know why, or you have a mechanism or a theory, then you can’t really intercept it. If you look at our website which is www.neuro-bio.com we think we do have an explanation as to why the cells die in Alzheimer’s, and if we’re right it means the evil chemical that we’ve identified as driving this process might be something we could measure in blood as well as intercepting it. Now, if you can measure it in blood early on, that means you could have a routine screen and then you could detect that Alzheimer’s has started even if you have no symptoms. At that point, if we’re right and our drug – unlike the other drugs – actually stops our cells dying, that’d be great! But it’d be even greater if you could do it at the pre-symptomatic stage, so that you could have a routine blood test, and if your blood test shows that there’s an issue, then you could be put on the medication straight away, and in the ideal world that means you’d never get the symptoms.
That’s our dream and that’s what fascinates me – until you have a behavioural problem, you don’t know you’ve got anything wrong, so we need to ask the basic question about why the cells are dying in the first place.
What fascinates you about the complexity of the brain?
My dad used to say, bless him, “you can’t use a knife of butter to cut butter”.
I think one of the most astonishing things about this research is that you’re asking the brain to analyse itself, and the problem is that people try to get around the complexity by making it simpler. They talk about the gene for this or that, or they talk about a certain brain region or chemical for this or that, and this reductionism – although it makes life easy – is wrong. The brain doesn’t work as a series of mini-brains, and it doesn’t have chemicals or genes with a certain function trapped inside them. So, I think in an attempt to simplify a situation, that’s where people are missing out. You have to embrace the complexity and think of it in a more wholistic way whereby you’re looking at interaction between chemicals, interaction between brain regions, interaction between genes and environment, and again it depends what question you’re asking. People ask, “how does the brain work”, and that’s really a meaningless question – what do you mean by work? The biggest question of all and what fascinates me is how do you get consciousness and what is consciousness, how does it arrive and how is it generated?
I wrote a book three years ago called A Day In The Life Of The Brain, which set out my theory such as it is on how one can cope with that. It’s not merely the complexity, it’s that the brain is like nothing else. It’s certainly not like a computer or a robot, and I for one certainly don’t think we need to fear AI because there’s no inner state, there’s no inner consciousness, it’s just a conversational device and the brain doesn’t work conversationally.
In your view, how is social media changing the way that our minds work?
I think the screen in general is changing the way that the brain works. We know that humans occupy more ecological niches than any other species on the planet because we adapt so well – this is something called plasticity – the human brain is fantastic at adapting to the environment and we now know there’s many examples that every experience and everything that happens to you literally leaves it’s mark on your brain. Even if you’re a clone or an identical twin, you’re going to have a unique pattern of brain cell connections, because every time you do something, or something happens to you, then a little connection is changed in your brain. You mature as you evolve, so the growth of the brain is caused by the proliferation of connections, which in turn is connected to your experiences, so you see one thing instead of something else because you’ve adapted and learned and had that experience.
Now given all that, it is obvious that if the environment is changing then plasticity of the brain will be affected. I’ve spoken long and hard about this matter and I feel now sadly, that I’ve been vindicated in a way that I wasn’t say 5-10 years ago. Clearly, there are very big changes occurring and whether they’re good or bad it’s changing the brain in many ways, and I think we can unpack it into social media, search engines and video games, all with different issues.
You asked about social media – the big problems there are interpersonal communication and identity.
In terms of face-to-face interpersonal communications, if you don’t rehearse body language, eye contact, physical contact, interpreting nods and so on, you’ll never know what it all means, and it will be very aversive. There’s a phrase now I use called “virtual autism”, where people have problems and struggle with interpersonal communication, which means of course you resort to even more screen time, and then you go in a downward spiral.
Your own notion of identity is also a problem, and something that fascinates me is the rise and rise of tattoos. 10 years ago, tattoos were as mainstream as they are now, so why should they be so popular when the technology has been around for a long time? My suggestion is that people now live in a world that’s highly transient, highly temporary – everything is shared and downloaded immediately and gone – so, the one thing that is your identity, that is by definition permanent, is a tattoo. Could that be the appeal for people? That’s their identity and its something no one else can have. I just put that out there as an interesting indication of identity and my own view is that identity comes from when you play games. When you play games in a proactive way, you are rehearsing an identity, and nowadays kids don’t get the opportunity to do that, they just sit in front of a screen where they are responding to second-hand images and they are not able to generate a world of their own. I think that is a serious problem.
What can we do to change this?
Well as a parent, first one must consider what kind of person you want your child to be and with what skills, and then you work backwards to get the technology to shape an environment that will deliver those things. Assuming you would like to raise people with strong interpersonal skills and a robust sense of identity, then I think you have to encourage experiences and events and environments that actually remove someone from responding passively to something, and to engaging in something that has a beginning, middle and end. Things like gardening, cooking or sport all have a fixed order that you can’t hurry, that way you have an end point different from where you started. I think imposing on people a much more extended present as it were, is important because the brain will adapt. If you have a beginning, middle and end, then you have time windows and you have a chance to have a thought. In comparison when we look at search engines, people confuse information with knowledge. You can access lots of facts, but you need to be able to join the dots up in order for it to make sense, and I think that’s what education should be.
You have published much scientific research on how the brain works and evolves. Since you first began pursuing scientific research, what main changes have been evident in the way the human brain evolves? Specifically thinking in relation to societal changes and its effect on brain development.
The brain has evolved. Nothings changed in terms of being what it is, its evolved to be a fantastic machine able to adapt to its environment. Its just the environment that’s changed, and as a result of adapting to a world dominated by hearing and vision and an environment where you’re not physically moving or exercising or interacting in rural environments, attitudes are changing, attention spans are changing, people are more reckless, and people have a more fragile sense of identity now. People are much more self-centred and self-referential, because they operate in generalisations or general abstracted ideas. I don’t think people are evolving to become more like robots, but more like volatile 3 years olds!
When looking at the World’s most influential neuroscientist alive today, there are not many women. How do you think more women can be inspired to pursue a scientific career within scientific fields of study and research?
Certainly, in medical science, there is a much healthier intake of women now than when I started, but the big problem is childbearing. In other careers when you have a break or you go on maternity leave, then you can go back to it, but science if different because only you do the science as you do it. It’s highly personal, no one can do it exactly the same as you and that’s why its so creative and so exciting. But this means that if you’re having time off to have children you won’t be able to just come back and plug in again, and that’s the real problem. Women face the choices like bankrupting themselves having full time nannies, in which case you think why have a child anyway, or they have to come back in a more junior capacity, or they give up science altogether, or they don’t have kids at all. Those are really unpleasant choices but that is one of the issues. I think there should be much more childcare provision.
Also, there’s still the fiction that science is a “blokey” field, but the way around that is to encourage science in school. I hated science in school, it was so boring, but if people talked about the brain it’d be much more interesting. If you discuss it in terms of what we experience day-to-day, like relationships and stuff like that, then it’s much easier for them to relate to biological subjects like the brain than it would be for other subjects like chemistry or physics.
What is your best advice for young women to keep in mind as they are embarking on their own journeys towards a successful work life?
To be themselves and to forget they’re women. I know it sounds silly but let me give an example. Only yesterday I was interviewing someone for a senior position over the phone, a man, and he actually said, “I’m used to working with strong-women”. I said to him “are you also used to working with strong-minded black people or strong-minded disabled people?” It’s irrelevant whether I’m a woman or not! The very fact that he said he was “used to working with strong women” suggested the very opposite, that he wasn’t, or else he wouldn’t have said such a stupid thing. And another time I was talking to another bloke and he was saying something like “oh you’ll get on well with so-and-so, yes, TWO WOMEN TOGETHER” … One must call it out for what it is when you come up against something like that. I’m sure in both cases it was said with every good intention, but I interpreted it as a sexist statement. It should be irrelevant that I’m a woman. Put your gender to one side, whatever you are, just be you.
You have to have a sense of humour as well. Whenever you feel bullied or frustrated like that, if you can go off and have a laugh about it, then they don’t have the power anymore. Laughing at bullies is the best thing you can do; it disarms them immediately. My mum taught me that, she was on the stage and had a lot of theatrical wisdom about bullying and criticism.
My advice to young women is to be yourself, keep your humour and especially if someone’s bullying you, just laugh at them; they can’t harm you if you laugh at them.
And then, a final quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.
And that’s how I’d like to end it.