Researcher presents brain’s white matter in Parliament

Andrea Rivera, who is studying white matter, thought to hold answers to why some people develop dementia

A former wine maker turned University of Portsmouth neuroscientist will be presenting his research in the Houses of Parliament, as part of British Science Week.

Andrea Rivera, 34, works on white matter, the layer beneath our brain’s grey matter, which is thought to hold answers to why some people develop dementia as they age.

His research is funded by the BBSRC aims to better understand the effect of ageing on the white matter.

Andrea described his research: “Everyone has heard of grey matter, the part of our brain that is the seat of our intelligence and humanity. People are less familiar with the white matter, which contains the ‘electrical cables’ – called axons – that connect all the different parts of the brain. What makes the white matter white is the insulation around the axons  – a fatty substance called myelin, which enables ultrafast signalling and makes our brain  a supercomputer.

“Imaging studies have shown that white matter is lost and our brain shrinks as we age. This loss is part of normal ageing but it is accelerated in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

“Myelin is made by special glial cells in the brain called oligodendrocytes, which are replaced throughout life by a specialised brain stem cell called oligodendrocyte progenitors.  By using genetic techniques and computer analysis, we have identified the loss of these stem cells in the ageing brain. Without progenitors, new oligodendrocytes and myelin are lost in the ageing brain.

“Now, we have discovered that a special cell signal called Wnt/GSK3b positively controls myelin formation and that disruption of this signal is one of the reasons why white matter is lost in the ageing brain. To take this work forward, we have established a new start-up company through which we aim to test some of our new discoveries to rejuvenate white matter formation and bring potential new treatments to the clinics to promote healthy brain ageing.”

The invitation to present a poster describing his research came as part of STEM for Britain, an annual programme to encourage, support and promote Britain’s early-stage and early-career research scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians.

This year’s event is sponsored by MP Stephen Metcalfe, chairman of the STEM for Britain organising group of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.

Andrea trained in Italy as a wine maker, but gave up that career to follow his passion for biology.

He moved to the University of Portsmouth to complete his BSc in Biology and met Professor Arthur Butt, a world expert in the study of a glial cells, the brain’s ‘support cells’, who offered to mentor him as a PhD student. He now works as a Research Fellow in Professor Butt’s laboratory in the School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences.

Andrea said: “I feel truly honoured to have been chosen to present my research at such important venue. It will be a great opportunity to meet talented people and see some of the excellent research being produced in UK.

“It will be very exciting to learn how the MPs and parliament deal with science as well as competing for the prestigious medals. Stem for Britain represent a great opportunity to put researchers and politicians to forge new links and positively change our future.

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