Expert Breakfast Report for 10 April 2019: Assoc Prof Christine Jasoni, Dept of Anatomy

Associate Professor Christine Jasoni is an accomplished researcher, teacher and enthusiastic science communicator, and we were treated to an excellent demonstration of those qualities, along with her engaging sense of humour.

The session very quickly became one of question and answer, rather than a formal presentation. With a member of the College studying music present, Assoc Prof Jasoni noted at the start of her talk that she had begun tertiary study as a music major, playing trumpet, both classical and jazz, and rather regretting she no longer plays. Christine encouraged people to maintain any other interest they might have in addition to their main studies. Being involved in something like that “brings you complete sanity if all your other studies get a little too much.” There is a danger of inadvertently isolating oneself, with study filling all of the space that should involve social contact.

Asked why she changed her major from music, Prof Jasoni noted the great difficulty of a performance musician in obtaining work, “You think there is a lot of competition in health sciences first year - music can be difficult . . . . and my parents also were pleased that I switched from music, because they thought I was going to have a difficult time. “ She clearly has mixed feelings about giving up music, for example, missing the multitude of very different people one interacts with when being involved in music, or any of the performance arts. - Though there is plenty of variation among scientists, as well.

Christine moved to New Zealand in 2002, in the wake of the ‘9/11’ disaster when Al Qaeda terrorists deliberately crashed four hijacked planes in the USA, including two into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. She noted that many of the members present would have been born in 2001, the year of that disaster - and noted also that conditions in the US, for different reasons, are still not entirely inviting. She also made the interesting comment that the ‘fear-mongering’ that went on in the States after 9/11 is, at least in part, responsible for what is happening there now. Becoming a New Zealand citizen about six years ago, she feels ‘very lucky . . Everything about New Zealand is fantastic - the people, the opportunities, even the smallness is great.”

In response to a question about her research Prof Jasoni responded by saying that she is a Neuroscientist, having been the Director of the Neuroscience Programme as well as teaching in that area. “I am interested in the development of the brain, and particularly I am interested in what happens, and how it is that the brain develops before birth.” When a baby is born, its brain is formed sufficiently for it to perform the functions necessary for survival. The brain that they are born with is the foundation for what subsequently happens - “all the things that come in from their environment, how they take care of that; how they socialise with their parents . . So what I’m interested in is how a mother’s health during pregnancy can impair the formation of her baby’s brain, so that . . it is at higher risk of functioning abnormally.” The group’s primary focus is on the effects of maternal obesity and maternal gestational diabetes. Their emphasis is on the impact this has on predisposing the child to autism spectrum disorder, and anxiety and depression.

[In gestational diabetes a woman who is not diabetic nevertheless develops increased blood glucose levels during pregnancy. The babies are at higher risk of being obese, and of developing type 2 diabetes- Ed.]

The research group looks at how the neural circuitry connects up in order to create behaviours, and the importance of reaching a particular level of connectivity early in development to create a good foundation for subsequent progression. The concept is that a person could develop the range of neurological disorders mentioned above later in life - autism spectrum disorder emerging around the age of 3 in general, with anxiety and depression manifesting themselves most commonly in adolescence. Thus there are developmental factors involved in these conditions in addition to social ones.

Their work is at the molecular and cellular level in mice, and Christine noted that, while the events at the molecular and cellular level observed in mice almost certainly mirror what happens in humans, how to intervene and prevent these problems in humans is less clear. “Because we use obesity and gestational diabetes during pregnancy . . . the one things I always try to do is to try to emphasise (the importance of) health during pregnancy. . . . . trying to get across to people that the healthier you are during pregnancy, the highest likelihood you have of having - not just a healthy pregnancy, but a healthy baby who is healthy and robust across their life.”

Assoc Prof Jasoni has gone to some lengths to spread this message. She used to have a fortnightly column in the Southland Times, has material published in the ODT, ran a blog on SciBlogs [https://sciblogs.co.nz/], and gives talks at schools, to which they take a giant inflatable brain, and talk about brain health.That includes such things as wearing a cycle helmet, tricks to studying, etc.

Commenting on science funding in response to a question, Christine mentioned that they have recently uncovered a couple of different things, and which of these they will pursue is really dependent on the result of two grant applications they have made. “I’ll pursue the one I get funding to do.” One of these discoveries concerns the offspring of obese others have a disturbed oxytocin system, which may be related to difficulties in these infants bonding with their mothers, which can lead to a life of difficulty with social interactions.

Other issues considered were:
• Placebo effect on psychological disorders may be particularly strong in the presence of a particular gene.
• The option of taking a B.Med. research year after the third year of medical studies.
• Main attractions of research for her include the discovery process - being in the position of being aware of something very few others, or even no-one else is aware of yet, and interacting with people — especially research students - in a way that makes them think the brain is ‘really cool’.
• The philosophical idea of thinking about the thing that you are thinking with.
• Brain research is a very hot topic at present, with a great deal being learnt about the brain, coupled with the ability to see what is going on in the brain in different situations to an increasingly detailed level, perhaps to the level of individual cells.
• Keeping one’s brain in good condition as one gets older - a balanced diet with not too much fat, regular exercise such as walking outside, ideally among trees, and getting enough sleep.
• Study techniques - use repetition without cheating! - And the value of teaching it to someone else in learning it yourself.

(As usual, there was more, but I have already exceeded my limit of 1,000 words. Do try to attend these breakfasts to gain the full experience).

Anyone who has not had the opportunity of seeing Prof Jasoni in action can get a sample at: https://vimeo.com/52126139

Posted: Thursday April 11, 2019