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“To build neuro-markers for every psychiatric illness, to be used in clinical settings – That would be the dream …”
Interview with professor Alan Anticevic
Alan Anticevic is the assistant professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, at Yale University School of Medicine. He also directs the Anticevic Lab which mainly focuses on pharmacological functional neuroimagining and computational modelling approaches for studying the cognitive neuroscience behind psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and substance abuse. He has been named a 2015 Rising Star by the Schizophrenia International Research Society and received the Klerman Prize for Exceptional Clinical Research from Brain and Behavior Research Foundation 2015 among many others. We had the opportunity to talk to him after the seminar Connecting the disconnected: new techniques of studying schizophrenia, where he was an honoured guest next to professor Grega Repovš. It was hosted by the Seminar group of SiNAPSA and Poligon on 4th of January 2016.
Where do your research interests lie?
As a group we are mostly interested in the neuro-based sphere of psychiatric illness and trying to understand the neuromechanisms that drive behavioural symptoms. Our main focus is obviously schizophrenia and psychosis in particular, and trying to understand how it starts and how it progresses.
How and what do you hope to contribute to science and society by your research?
I can only hope that’s the outcome. We can do that by trying to move our information and knowledge base forward little by little while trying to understand how psychiatric problems ultimately start. To build neuromarkers for every psychiatric illness that can be used in clinical settings in guiding treatments and pharmacological interventions, that would be the dream. That’s the goal, the ideal outcome.
So what does it feel like to learn, to discover something that no one has before as a scientist, as a researcher?
It’s incredible. You have moments where you make an incremental gain and then you have moments when you figure something out that you really didn’t know. That’s exhilarating. It’s really hard to describe, it’s just so much fun.
That moment of pure insight?
Yeah, it’s fantastic. You hope that it comes more often than not. Putting it together, reporting it, communicating what you found. The entire process is very rewarding.
But your field of study is actually not that researched yet. It is more unknown and it’s completely different than, for example, the big five factors of personality where researchers already know what the base for such processes is, their connections to other phenomena or how to build new research questions. But your approach to this research is kind of starting from scratch, isn’t it?
In some sense, yes. But I think that you could say for the field or the study of mental illness, that it has been around for a hundred years and, as you know, the field of statistics is younger than our field and they’ve merged. I think that the problem is complicated and we are approaching it every way we can. It’s young, it’s growing and that’s part of the challenge and part of the excitement. You can do a lot of things, make an impact and a contribution.
Let’s talk about the role of a mentor. What is a mentor’s most important mission? What do you think the role of a mentor should be and what kind of a mentor would you like to be?
I think you have to be flexible. I think that flexibility is really important. The thing I valued the most in my mentors was how different people could contribute different things while challenging me to push myself to what I am really capable of doing. Providing an environment, providing the situation where you can thrive, where you can do your best work, creating a setting. I think that’s really important. Mentorship in a conceptual sense isn’t enough. I think that in our field you have to provide the infrastructure and flexibility because every person is different. You have to, sort of, realize what their strengths and their weaknesses are while working with them to help them get wherever they want to go. So I think that either having a mentor or being a mentor is one of the most important activities in our field that you can possibly engage in. Because people are always moving and travelling somewhere, we are not static. So, to this day, I’ve had mentors that were incredibly important to me and I try do the same thing for my students.
Could you briefly outline the role ketamine plays in your research?
We use it as a pharmacological model of psychosis and we try to briefly mimic the symptoms associated with psychosis in order to try to understand them, to see how those types of alterations might occur in the central nervous system and how we can relate that treatment and the effects that we later on see in patients. We use it as a casual experimental platform.
How do you address the criticism of the gap between computational modelling of mental illness and its phenomenology on the other hand?
I think it’s a huge gap. I think it’s something we, as a field, are actively trying to work on and address. I don’t think that anyone has the answer and there are no unifying solutions. I just think that building models that can scale levels of analysis and building the experiments that can test model prediction, that’s the challenge that we have to go through. And I think that it’s a fair criticism and it’s something that as a field we still have to struggle to address.
What is the most frustrating part of a scientific paper to write for you? What do you struggle the most with, what do you hate doing the most?
As it is in the paper, I think that I honestly don’t hate any part.
So, a true researcher by heart.
Yeah, I think it’s hard to say that I hate doing it, you know. If I would hate anything, if there were parts of my work that I would hate, I think I couldn’t do it. I’ll tell you what I like the most. I like making results. I like building figures, I like communicating the visual aspect of the result. I think that’s the most important thing you can do for an empirical or a modern paper. I think it’s really taking care and pride in communicating with results, with accuracy and proper detail and I like doing it a lot. Thinking of how to tell the story, so that people can absorb it and it makes sense. I really like the constructive process. It’s almost like building a statue. I don’t sit down and write a paper in one evening. I start to carve my way around. They are quite long and extensive and have high impact in journals, so I try not to produce minor papers and I can’t really sit down and write it in the afternoon. I go through it like a sort of a painting process, you know, and every day I put on even more and at some point I’m satisfied with it enough and I can send it out. That process is really rewarding, and it’s just like building something that you know will hopefully be appreciated. And that’s kind of how we go about it.
How would you describe the creative process when you get an idea or a research question? How do you narrow it down to one idea from a broad spectre of interests? Is there a lot of coffee and blackboards involved?
That’s a great question. So, I think that it depends on what I am doing. Usually our field is very outcome oriented, so it is not like I have some sort of metaphysical idea that isn’t applicable, it’s usually something very applicable. So, at this stage in my career there are 15, 20 ideas, that are not implemented, because it takes time to build them and they have emerged over time. At this point the creative process almost constantly happens, it continues. When I work with the students and it comes up, I think it’s not active effort to generate ideas so much as just it is happening. And so I just kind of keep following through, you know, and keep that momentum. But I think that it is useful to know some things about yourself. Everybody should know what they are good at and what they are not good at. So I’m not good at thinking in isolation. I can’t sit for hours and make ideas flow. I’m best at interacting, so my ideas come when I’m verbalising, when I’m bouncing off ideas, when I debate, when I engage. Sometimes that continues through dialogue, with consolidation of ideas, pointing it back and realizing where your thinking was odd, you know, kind of making sense through yourself out loud. That is part of my creative process, I really like doing it collaboratively, I really like engaging other people, I really like to be challenged, and for people to people tell me I’m wrong, and then after I think why do they think I am wrong. This is how I connect what to do next and then I just know how to formulize it and how to go about doing it. That’s the training, that’s the part your mentors help you develop, how to take that idea, that concept into something you can actually execute.
Who or what is your greatest inspiration for your work? Is it the content, the outcome, the people you debate your ideas with? Or just a personal passion?
I just really like the process. For example I have been here in Slovenia for a couple of days and in Croatia before this and I am just itching to come back, so I can sink my teeth in whatever I was doing before I left and that’s sort of how I am built, you know. I have these big picture goals, but I don’t work with the sense that maybe one day these big picture goals will come to pass and then I’ll be able to relax. It’s more; I just like doing things. And so it happens in the field and I just happen to have the ability to do it well and in the long way that’s awesome, I’ll take it.
Do you have something that demotivates you sometimes? You have things that inspire you, like the process itself. Do you ever feel demotivated by the research process, maybe peer review sometimes?
No, I like the peer review. It is self-correction sometimes, so I think, it’s usually not a matter if your paper will get published. It is more a matter of where. You have so many venues these days where you can get your work published. You have to persevere, right? So peer review is fine, great review is sometimes more challenging because it takes so much time, it takes so much longer to get a review and to get a grant funded, so that’s not always satisfying. But I think that sometimes the politics bother me. In the scientific politics, I am just dealing with complex personalities and social interactions and that is something you don’t normally learn in graduate school, it is not taught and you are not exposed to it. But ultimately, as you move through your career, you realise, that you have to navigate that. We do joke of the state of perpetual academic over-commitment, having just a lot of obligations all the time and sometimes bouncing that gets to be fatiguing. Otherwise no, I don’t have very many frustrations in my day to day.
So which are the three most influential or most important books in your opinion for a neuroscientist to read? I would say you definitely want to have the book Principals of Neural Science by Eric R. Kandel, that one is definitely a must. I would say that it really depends of the field you are going into. As a neuroscientist and as a computation neuroscientist I would say there’s a few really solid theoretical neuroscience books that one might be interested in, for instance Gyorgy Buzsaki’s Rhythms of the Brain is a really quality book. As a neuroimager, a kind of a big picture review book is Greg McCarthy’s Functional Neuroimaging. It’s very good. I see text books at this stage of my career as references like the places to go to when you need an information, so I think that if you as a student can get a very good broad base in neuroscience, then you just go to the sources that you need and I think learning how to self-teach becomes very important, like how to absorb the information that you need and kind of committing to that form of learning process.
So where do you want to take your research next? What do you envision your next project to be about?
I hope we can get it funded, we’ll see, but if we can get funded I think the thing I am most excited about is studying the early stage of schizophrenia, trying to understand what’s happening early in the illness course, how it is changing in the relationship trough symptoms. I would like to move work more cross diagnostically, trying to understand how these problems manifest across different diagnosis, what is really schizophrenia-specific and what is more general. Those are the two broad areas I am really excited about, characterizing some of the former cortical effects in a relation to different illness stages.
Do you have a message you want to give researchers, undergrads maybe, do you have some inspiration or something you would like to pass on?
I just think that if possible, you should pursue what you are interested in. You should try to find out what you are interested in, relatively early if possible. You should pursue it and you have to be really, really persistent about it. In science, especially clinical neuroscience, there is so much opportunity and as a student entering the field you must not get discouraged by the information load.
It can get discouraging sometimes. There is so much, not just information, but also so many fields and so many interesting venues you can pursue.
Right, and I think you have to pick one and hopefully it will be guided by interest, by the thing that is interesting. You have to realize it’s a marathon and that’s sort of the best way that I can locate it. You are running a marathon, not running a sprint. Research careers are very long, they can go well into people’s eighties, it’s one of those things that you can start early or you can start late and still make a very big impact. I think that just being really persistent, not giving up, continuously going after what you care about, this should be one of your guiding principles, you know. And not necessarily career outcomes, not necessarily thinking whether I’ll get to this stage, but rather, can I do what I love? Can I get into an environment where I can do that? And usually that produces the best findings.
This concludes our interview. Thank you very much.
Oddelek za psihologijo,
Univerza v Ljubljani