Judith Homberg: Walking on the treadmill

Judith’s talk had a very illustrative beginning. Wearing a lab coat she was comparing different liquids that either mix or do not mix with differences in human personalities. These geeky experiments that we all remember from our chemical lessons in high school, relate to emotional response and cognitive functioning in humans! It turns out that emotion and cognition both heavily interact with the environment, but that the mechanisms underlying this, is different for different individuals. This makes that, while some people mix and naturally interact, like water and syrup, other people social interactions can be like water and oil. Judith tells a personal story and it turns out that she really was a geek wearing self-made clothing walking around with a solid leather satchel around her shoulder wanting to protect her beloved books. Naturally I recognize these stereotypes, but I guess you can say that I found myself more
on the lazy side of the spectrum, doing the minimal to pass in order to have as many free time to play Nintendo games and play tennis. If Judith and I interacted in high school, we would have probably not gotten along. Roughly stated, I was more an orchid and Judith a dandelion. However, with a little discipline, I got my mind in the books and now do the master of cognitive neuroscience, the same field Judith works in. One day we might have to interact and with some soap in the mix, this should not be a problem. The research behind this TEDtalk
is actually very interesting and very important for healthcare. Judith did not really go into detail about the research she does, but we certainly must not underestimate the importance of this research!

The results of this kind of research could someday actually be implemented and help many people, from patients with depressive syndromes to drug addicts. The utilization is so
diverse because genes are not definitive under any circumstance when it regards people’s susceptibility! It is a starting point and as of there your faith depends heavily on environmental cues you are exposed to. This starts when you are in the womb but continues throughout your whole life. Your brain develops accordingly, and everything in the environment can influence this process. Everyone probably knows this because it is well established that drinking and smoking when you are pregnant is bad. But sometimes influences are not that
transparent. One of Judith’s research is centred around antidepressants SSRI’s and serotonin. Turns out that SSRI’s like Prozac may have paradoxical effects when it comes to susceptibility to depression later on in life. So while Prozac is subscribed by doctors to pregnant patients, this may lead to brain changes in the foetus that have detrimental effects, later on causing depression. The same might hold for use of SSRI in adolescents. This nicely illustrates the importance of using animal models.

I have had several lectures from Judith and I can tell you that she always stresses two very important things, basically to give a better insight and maybe to reassure the occasionally animal right activist student. The first is that you have think about what your animal model actually represents and how the model correlates to the patient or disease. The second is that there are strict rules you have to follow when doing animal research. You need a personal licence, this entails that you are competent, trained and that the procedures you may do are
specified. Also, you need a project licence, this allows a personal license holder to carry our specified procedures for a specified project that cannot be done without animals and where severity justifies likely gain.

I studied both biology and medicine and the different reactions to the animal test that Judith describes is striking. While the biologist are relaxed, eating their lunch, in contrast, the medicine students’ jaws sometimes drops in disbelief of the test they do. This reaction I find both funny and striking, like some of them have never thought about how research is done! The last thing I want here is to start a debate about the ethicality of animal research, but I have to be clear that this is really not cruel research, like I said, there are many rules to follow
and everything is approved by ethical committees. If we are realistic, animal research is really at the core of improving healthcare. It is extremely important that we have animal models, if we did not, imagine the following. Movies like The Nutty Professor and Honey I Shrunk the Kids might actually be a reality; scientist testing medicines on themselves or their kids. Roles could be reversed: rats and mice would be common domestic pets, while halve of human patients  would get treatment and the other halve is used  as experimental subjects. Flip a coin
and be either lead down the production line, or up. Just like in the food industry, where recently born chicks are lead down to the gas chamber in the case of it being a male (they are of no use for the food industry) or up to await their hormone injections in the case of being a female. This actually happens in the real world!

Back on topic, the message that can be taken away from Judith’s talk and her research is that, in healthcare we have to be aware of individual differences and use this to our
advantage in therapy and therapy design. With this mind-set in the future, drug addicts could be helped in an unexpected, yet simple way. Note that illnesses like addiction and depression are situated (and most problematic) in the real world, not in the clinic or rehabilitation facility! With the research results implemented, patients can really understand their illness and thus be able to better fight it to get on the right track again. Because the brain might be easily thrown off, but the brain is also plastic and has the flexibility to recover. This can
be done effectively and accurately by using the environment to our advantage.

Judith Homberg


A blog by Anke Murillo Oosterwijk