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Message from the Director (2019)

It is a pleasure to highlight here, the sustained excitement, growth and progress in the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN) over the past two years, during which the Institute has enjoyed a continuous addition of terrific colleagues together with added capabilities and synergies that they have brought with them.  Before introducing these new dimensions, it is important to acknowledge that TCIN’s growth has been driven not only by the importance and excitement of Neuroscience, but also by visionary schools and units across College that have worked strategically to recruit academic staff in the field.  Particular credit to Ian Robertson and Brian Lawlor who successfully established in TCIN, the Global Brain Health Institute a collaboration with the University of California San Francisco supported by an approximately $170 million grant from Atlantic Philanthropies.  Credit also to the Heads of School of Psychology and Medicine who have supported the growth of GBHI and TCIN and, together with the School of Biochemistry and Immunology, driven a series of energetic new appointments in Neuroscience.  

Over the past two years, TCIN has developed new strengths in computational neuroscience and psychiatry. Recently appointed principle investigators (PIs) Clare Gillian (GBHI and Psychology), Lorina Naci (GBHI and Psychology) and Rhodri Cusack (Thomas Mitchell Professor of Neural Imaging, Psychology) now combine with Rob Whelan and Clare Kelly who joined us in 2016, in using sophisticated computational techniques to understand brain systems, particularly artificial intelligence and “big data” approaches to identify signals from large clinical or imaging data sets. This allows several new synergies: with existing groups using animal and human fMRI and EEG, with Sven Vanneste (GBHI and Psychology’s new Professor of Global Brain Health) working on interventional approaches to externally modulate targeted brain activities, as well as with Engineering and Computer Science as they develop new teaching and research initiatives in machine learning and analyses of big data.

On similar lines, the research of new appointments including Mark Cunningham (Ellen Mayston Bates Professor, Physiology) and David Loane (Biochemistry) connects with that of Colm Cunningham, Eric Downer, Sarah Doyle, Marina Lynch and several others in TCIN and Immunology.  Together they strengthen research in neural inflammation, a process relevant to physiological stress associated with the normal range of brain activity, pathological stress associated with ageing, disease and neurodegeneneration as well as social stress associated with, among other conditions, loneliness, depression and alienation.  Significantly, preclinical intervention in aging, social stress and mental health are increasingly appreciated by policymakers as under-resourced areas, critically important for societal health.  This increased core strength in neuroimmunology creates  new opportunities for TCIN subgroups to work together in important, emerging fields.

For an Institute housed in the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science, it has been specially valuable to welcome new clinical colleagues who allow additional lines of engagement between fundamental and clinical neuroscience. Mary Cannon, Jane McGrath, Eleanor Molloy and Joe Harbison now join already committed colleagues from the School of Medicine to drive several clinical collaborations of scale.  Their involvement with TCIN creates notable opportunities for new promising collaborations in developmental neuroscience and children’s mental health in coordination with TRiCC, the newly reconfigured Trinity Research in Childhood Centre

As important as the addition of new staff to the health of an Institute, is the renewal of PIs, who, usually after about 7 years (suggested by Seymour Benzer to reflect an intellectual “seven-year itch”) often feel need for rejuvenation.  Happily, TCIN has been successful here in many ways. Some, like Paul Dockree, Richard Reilly, Jane McGrath and Sarah Doyle moved their research groups to the Lloyd building, refreshing their groups as well as their now proximal colleagues.  Some, such as Shane O’Mara (“Why Torture Doesn’t Work,” “A Brain for Business,” and “In Praise of Walking”), Veronica O’Keane (“The Matter of Memory”) and Kevin Mitchell (“Innate”), have written wonderful and well-reviewed popular books that broadened their intellectual worlds and have led to valuable engagement with new colleagues, with the public and, importantly, with health and social policy development.  Others, such as Andrew Harkin (Deputy Director TCIN), Maeve Caldwell (Head of Physiology) and Kevin Mitchell (Senior Lecturer), assumed new leadership roles that allow them to contribute their vision and wisdom to the broader research community. And most others are working towards (or been successful at) winning long-term funding that allow focus on new research directions.

Of particular value, stalwarts of TCIN, Ian Robertson and Brian Lawlor, have immersed themselves in GBHI over the past two years, recruiting, supporting and training extraordinarily diverse groups of young “Atlantic Fellows,”and working with them on projects that will in different ways facilitate mechanisms, processes and policies that ensure healthy brain ageing. These Fellows, mentored by GBHI PIs bring new dimensions to TCIN, with interests ranging from health benefits of music and art to cognitive neuroscience, clinical practice and policy relevant to healthy aging.  Their work through GBHI, not only provides a framework valuable for other potential large-scale collaborative programmes, but also through their fellows and PIs such as Lorina Naci, provide connections to the Trinity Long Room Hub (TLRH) and other new interdisciplinary developments in TCIN.

A historic strength of the Institute of Neuroscience has been an outward looking stance, open to explore connections with all areas of human endeavour.  A Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Fund (ISSF) award to TCIN has allowed us a mechanism to express some of these broader ambitions, in particular to support several activities that link Neuroscience with the Humanities, Arts and with Society. A major success of this programme has been a series of Neurohumanities workshops and public lectures (driven significantly by the indefatigable Tomás Ryan, who also organized a luminous cast of neuroscientists to speak at the once-in-25 years “What Is Life” Symposium) that have hosted outstanding intellects and speakers including Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett.  In this and other ways, the ISSF programme has provided new platforms for discussion, research and training across the traditionally divided academics in Neuroscience and Humanities, thus helping to bridge the “CP Snow divide.” For academics increasingly overburdened by defined commitments, this has helped create brief, magical periods of open intellectual discourse, often the source of the most creative and original ideas.   

It is traditional in such letters to list recent accomplishments and achievements of Institute PIs.  Because a comprehensive list would be too long, I here mention only a few of the more visible recognitions.  TCIN PIs Jane Farrar and Tomás Ryan won two of the major Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Annual awards for 2018.  Jane won the SFI Best Reported Impact Award for her terrific work, started in collaboration with Pete Humphries, using genetic information to understand and develop therapies for neurodegenerative retinal disorders such as retinitis pigmentosa.  Tomás was named SFI Early Career Researcher of the Year in 2018, for his pioneering work on memory engram cells, his international scientific leadership as well as for the impact of his public engagement activities on Irish society.  Three TCIN PIs, Paul Dockree, Sarah Doyle and Matthew Campbell won Irish Research Council’s founding Laureate Awards that will support and drive new initiatives in their research groups.  Among several major grants (SFI Investigator and Wellcome Investigator Awards) won by established TCIN PIs, the most impactful for TCIN is Rhodri Cusack’s European Research Council Advanced Research grant, awarded for his work using artificial intelligence and computational methods to understand how neural networks and neural representations develop in the human infant brain.  This meshes wonderfully with TCIN’s successful application for an SFI Infrastructure Award, also driven by Rhodri, for state-of-the-art 3T human MRI scanner, which now aligns the TCIN MRI facility with the best brain imaging centres in the world.  This will enhance TCIN’s ability to contribute to international consortia and drive new individual, institutional and international human brain imaging programmes going forward.  

While acknowledging these achievements, it is important to note that formal recognitions come from previous years of unsung and often invisible effort. The best institutes and environments not only laud final outcomes but also recognize and provide sustained support of its investigators as they pass through the sometimes lonely, early stages of research and scientific inquiry. On these lines, I express my formal appreciation of committed efforts of other PIs not mentioned in this section, as well as of the collegial spirit within TCIN that should ensure fresh successes in coming years.

For the smooth function of TCIN over the years, deep thanks are due to Ciaran Conneely Operations Director, Barbara Hewitt, Finance Manager TCIN and Aisling Hume (ISSF and Public Engagement Coordinator) for their commitment in demanding years.  Christine Shortt provided valuable support with research grant applications. A particular welcome to Elaine Oliveira who adds cheer and ever reliable efficiency to the office.   Finally, personal thanks to Paddy Cunningham, who has chaired the TCIN Board, to members of the Board Vinny Cahill (Dean FEMS), Andrew Bowie and Linda Doyle (Associate Dean and Dean of Research), Michael Gill (Head of School of Medicine), David Hevey (Head of School of Psychology), Orla Sheils (Director TTMI), Andrew Harkin (Deputy Director TCIN) as well to TCIN PIs on the Board or Executive Management Committee for their wisdom, support and engagement.  The contents of this letter reflect the effectiveness of their involvement as well as the energy, quality and commitment of TCIN PIs.

With best wishes for 2019,

Mani Ramaswami
Director TCIN
January 2019