We spoke to Dr Erik Mire, Principal Investigator and Hodge Research Fellow in the Hodge Centre for Psychiatric Immunology part of Cardiff University’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute, about his research which looks at how mothers’ diets can affect brain development in unborn babies.
Tell us a bit about your research
The ultimate goal of my research is to understand the origins of brain disorders in the womb. The brain is a very complex organ, home to a tremendous number of different types of nerve cells that have to communicate precisely with other cells. These cells are often located in different brain regions, sometimes far away in the other brain hemisphere or down to the spinal cord.
The major stages of brain formation actually take place in the womb and set the scene for proper brain function later in life. It’s when the blueprint of brain circuits is established and when the different types and correct number of nerve cells develop. It’s also when the major communication routes (called axon tracts) between the different parts of the brain are established.
Previously a number of genes that are important for these developmental processes have been identified and help us understand how these cells are made up, how they reach their proper location or how the communication routes are established.
But we’re taking a completely different approach to better understand the origins of mental disorders. We’re investigating the consequences of exposures to environmental factors during pregnancy on foetal brain development, specifically the factors associated with an increased risk of neuropsychiatric disorders.
One of these factors is maternal obesity, which is very common in our society (obesity is predicted to affect 21% of women worldwide by 2025), frequently associated with poor diet. We study how different types of maternal diet might change the number of nerve cells generated, the type of cells that are generated and how communication routes are established in the foetal brain. Our results suggest the type of diet consumed by the mother does impact brain formation.
What we are doing now is working to understand what goes wrong in these nerve cells. Are they sensitive to specific nutrients found in the diet? Do they have the same capacity of normal cells to multiply and produce neurons? Is their cellular composition (the different building blocks they’re made of) changed by maternal diet? We are seeking to answer these questions.
Another important aspect of our work explores interactions between the immune and nervous system during foetal life. A major role of the immune system is to detect and protect the body against harmful stimuli, usually external ones. In that sense it’s ideally positioned to detect environmental factors and relay this information. Immune cells make a significant contribution to proper brain development by eliminating unnecessary cells and connections, but also helping to build communication routes between different brain areas. What we don’t know is if any of these immune cells can perform these different tasks or whether some specialised cells exist. This is the question Jonathan Davis, my very talented PhD student, is addressing in the lab. Uncovering specialised populations of immune cells within the developing brain will help us understand how environmental insults can impact the foetal brain.
What is your hope for your research and how it might benefit people in the future?
By taking an alternative approach focused on environmental factors and foetal life, we believe we will provide new insights on the origins and causes of mental disorders, that will complement more classic genetic-centred approaches. Our focus on early life will help develop new therapies and, more importantly, design preventive strategies by identifying risk in pregnancy and providing science-based advice to policy makers. The earlier we can identify those people who might develop these diseases, the earlier they can be cared for, supported, and help limit the impact of their condition. A broader approach is really needed to tackle this issue and I’m working to bring very diverse expertise together.
What made you come to work at Cardiff?
I was looking for a place where I could start my own group to work on these questions. Cardiff has a vibrant neuroscience community, from basic research to clinical work, which make it an amazing place to do research. There are also several groups outside of neuroscience doing great work with which I could clearly see common interest.
What role have donors played in your research?
Their role is definitely essential and I am so grateful to The Hodge Foundation for all their support for me and the Hodge Centre for Psychiatric Immunology. Philanthropic support for scientists allows them to take more risks into their research, giving them more chances to make ground-breaking discoveries that will impact society in the UK and worldwide.
What are you favourite things about Cardiff?
What I really like about the University is the sense of community. I find it quite easy to go knock on doors and discuss with people about ideas of collaborations etc so it’s really nice. The city itself is lovely. I enjoy its reasonable size, the water that surrounds it and its welcoming people.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I’m a foody! I love good food so I enjoy cooking nice meals, maybe it’s because I’m French and my father was chef. I also like traveling and discovering new places, new cultures. So I’m looking forward to when we can move freely again obviously.
Find out more about neuroscience research at Cardiff University.