New test for early Alzheimer’s disease

John Mulcahy, Project Co-Ordinator, MSSI, Denis Stoiakine, CEO,NT-MDT Ireland and Dr Syed Tofail, Lead Scientist, MSS

In Ireland, over 44,000 people are affected by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. There are 7.7 million new cases of dementia each year worldwide, implying that there is a new case of dementia somewhere in the world every four seconds. At present there is no test to screen for this disease. The World Alzheimer Report 2011 identified that the current lack of detection is a significant barrier to improving lives of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, their families and carers.

The research team based at the Materials and Surface Science Institute (MSSI), UL are leading a European consortium that is developing the nanoscope. Dr Syed Tofail, Lead Scientist on the project said; “Early detection of Alzheimer’s is critical in developing  effective treatments for the disease and there is currently no test available. Our technique would be able to detect Alzheimer’s-related amyloid plaques in the early stage with much more detail.”

The prototype developed will be easy to use, flexible and allow direct imaging of the chemistry and the structure of very small features. The technique uses infra-red radiation as a source of detection but breaks away from its physical diffraction limit so as to see features as small as 70 nanometers in lateral dimension, which is comparable to the size of a virus. The technique is also capable of seeing buried features without the need for destroying the surface of a cell or a material.

Read more on this story on the UL website.

Friends, Foes and Founding a University

Robert Coke, 4th Year GEMS Student Class Rep, Dr Ed Walsh, Founding President of UL, Samer Haj-Bakri, 1st Year GEMS student and Health and Safety Officer, UL Medical Society and Professor Billy O'Connor, Head of Teaching and Research in Physiology, GEMS, UL.

Pictured with Dr. Ed Walsh, Founding President of the University of Limerick, who delivered a public lecture yesterday entitled “Friends, Foes and Founding a University”, based on his memoir “Upstart”, as part of the Graduate Entry Medical School public lecture series.

Is depression and anxiety best treated with medication or psychotherapy?

What is the best treatment for depression?

I attended a lecture last week by leading clinical psychologist and head of the counselling service in the University of Limerick, Dr. Declan Aherne, entitled

Medication or psychotherapy in the treatment of depression and anxiety.”

The lecture discussed research results – from 1995 to 2011 – which examined the effects of medication and psychotherapy – given alone and in combination – on depression and anxiety. I was impressed by the lecture and by the question from the audience – many of whom were Psychiatrists, GPs, sufferers themselves and others working the area of depression and anxiety.

Let me explain some definitions and summarize a few points raised in this excellent lecture.

Some definitions:

Psychotherapy: The treatment of a behaviour disorder, mental illness, or any other condition by psychological means.

Medication (psychopharmacology): The scientific study of the actions of drugs and their effects on mood, sensation, thinking, and behavior.

Some interesting points I took from the lecture include:

  1. Incidence – anxiety affects 66 million and depression affects 31 million each year in Europe alone.
  2. Treatment – medication is only beneficial in severe but not moderate or mild depression while up to 30% of patients take both psychotherapy and medication.
  3. Delivery – in Europe, psychotherapy is delivered mainly by non-psychiatrists (mostly psychotherapists) however there is a lack of communication between the psychotherapist and medical doctor in 22% of patients taking both psychotherapy and medication.
  4. Trends – between 1998 and 2007 – the use of psychotherapy decreased from 16% to 10% and combined treatment from 40% to 32%, while the use of medication actually increased from 44% to 57% – possibly reflecting a shift in away from psychotherapy and toward medication.
  5. Cost – it is estimated that the same therapeutic effect can be achieved with €70 for psychotherapy compared with €100 with medication (Prozac) over a 24 month period.
  6. What actually works – the efficacy of psychotherapy is best seen using practice based evidence – while the effects of medication are seen using evidence based practice. Psychotherapy therefore, cannot be reduced to a product resembling a drug.


Having been involved in this research area since I earned a Ph.D. on the psychopharmacology of depression over 25 years ago I am convinced that far from there being a debate over which of the two treatments are best – psychotherapy and medication are in fact two sides of the same coin. The recent discovery that what we experience changes the shape of the brain – allowing discrete areas in the brain to grow or change – by adding a tiny fraction of the brain’s neural circuitry and eliminating old ones. As more findings from the neurosciences inform best practices in psychotherapy a new field of neuropsychotherapy will help develop better, more effective therapies to improve brain function and mental health.

What we already know

Nerve cells or neurons are notoriously bad at dividing. Rather than divide, a neuron survives by making up to 10,000 connections to neighbouring neurons – and this is the key to how we learn and recall as memories are created and strengthened.  This compromise works well most of the time however in depression and anxiety a gradual loss in the strength of previous healthy connections in the emotional centres of the brain  – often triggered by a loss – starts to take it toll resulting in a noticeable reduction in mood as we find it harder to remain positive. As the illness progresses a vicious cycle develops whereby maladaptive thoughts and behaviours such as persistent negative thinking, phobias and apathy take hold  – driven by a new set of this time ‘faulty’ connections.

Brain wiring – making healthy connections – is the key to recovery  

Studies in animals show that medication (e.g. an antidepressant drug) not only makes the previously healthy connections in the brain work better but it also triggers the brain to grow new nerve cells. Psychotherapy on the other hand helps to rewire the faulty connections as well as wiring-up new healthy connections from the newly generated neurons. If depression and anxiety resembled a broken down car then medication is the petrol that revives the engine while psychotherapy is the tweaking of any faulty electronic wiring – allowing the car to hum along without a hitch.

Psychotherapy and medication – vive la différence

I predict that in the future – treatments for depression and anxiety will not only involve psychotherapy and medication but will also include a combination of other therapies such as social support, self-help techniques, nutrition, sleep hygiene and exercise. Furthermore, these therapies may be prescribed alone and in combination at key stages to promote the growth of new neurons, strengthen healthy connections and rewire the faulty ones. This combined approach will treat the person as a whole, and will mark the beginning of the journey back to wellness and a normal life.

University of Limerick medical graduates conferred

Pictured with Dr. Neasa Starr at UL Medical Graduation

Last Tuesday, 14 June, was an historic day in the life of the University of Limerick Graduate Entry Medical School  (GEMS) in which I am Foundation Head of Teaching and Research in Physiology.

Four years ago on September 10th we welcomed 32 students, from a variety of degree disciplines, to Limerick to study at Ireland’s first graduate entry medical school. Last week those students, who came from backgrounds as diverse as music, engineering, science, and education, were conferred with their Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees.

Last week’s conferring ceremony for students marks a number of firsts – the first medical school to be founded in Ireland in over 150 years, the first graduate entry medical school in Ireland, and the first to integrate problem based learning techniques into its four-year curriculum.

I join with all my colleagues at GEMS in wishing this cohort of new doctors every success in their future careers.

Is the internet changing your brain?

Is the internet changing the way we think?

This Saturday, 11 June, I am looking forward to giving a talk at 3D Camp at the University of Limerick on how the internet is changing our brain. I will be exploring the question of whether our brains are being altered due to our increasing reliance on search engines, social networking sites and other digital technologies.

Using a basic understanding of brain structure (neurology) I will explain the concept of ‘brain plasticity’- the ability of the brain to constantly rewire itself – and will show how all learning changes the shape of the brain, allowing specific areas in the brain to grow or change. I will also be demonstrating how the new ‘cybertherapies’ are being used to help patients suffering from addiction and post traumatic stress disorder back to health.  I believe this new resource has the potential to dramatically improve mental health including new opportunities to learn healthy habits to lift our mood and enhance our brains longevity.

There are still places left on this themed Barcamp which looks at The Internet Beyond Web 2.0. Areas. Attendance is FREE! 

Click here to register

Your brain and the art of happiness

Last month during his visit to Ireland, the Dalai Lama addressed a capacity crowd at the University of Limerick. He spoke at length about compassion and happiness,  emphasising that we all possess the ability to achieve happiness and a meaningful life.

As a neuroscientist and educator I have had a keen interest in this area over the past 30 years and I have tried to include something of the flavour of what the Dalai Lama teaches in my own research in neuroscience – the scientific study of the brain.

In his book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama points to four basic principles of happiness:

1. The purpose of life is happiness.
2. Happiness is determined more by the state of one’s mind than by one’s external conditions, circumstances, or events—at least once one’s basic survival needs are met.
3. Happiness can be achieved through the systematic training of our hearts and minds, through reshaping our attitudes and outlook.
4. The key to happiness is in our own hands.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that the achievement of happiness is scientific and requires discipline. It’s no surprise to me then that the Dalai Lama in Limerick spoke of the need for more neuroscientific research into emotions and the health benefits of cultivating a more compassionate and loving outlook in life.

Over the coming week I will explore these teachings in more detail and look at ways in which we can apply them to help our brains break free from the trap of unhappiness.

Dalai Lama to visit University of Limerick

The University of Limerick is to host a public address by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama on Thursday, 14th April 2011.  The event is being organised in conjunction with the charity ‘Children in Crossfire’ established by Richard Moore, a long-time friend of the Dalai Lama, and two non profit organisations, and Afri.  

The University of Limerick address will be the final engagement for the Dalai Lama who will be in Ireland for just two days in April as a guest of Richard Moore and ‘Children in Crossfire’.  The charity was established in 1996 by Richard Moore from Derry, who in 1972, aged 10 was blinded by a rubber bullet and has since become a leading international advocate for the rights of children suffering from the injustice of poverty.

Richard was awarded the Harry McKillop Irish Spirit Award for his humanitarian activities.  ‘Children in Crossfire’ envisages the creation of a safe environment where all children can realise their rights, develop to the fullest and reach their potential. By improving early childhood care for development, the charity, of which the Dalai Lama is Patron, strives to empower young children and their communities to build a better future.

Civic and community leaders will be invited to hear His Holiness speak on the theme of ‘The Power of Forgiveness’ and the event will include ritual chant and music performances by students and faculty of the Irish World Academy at UL as well as performances by the Irish Chamber Orchestra.  Limerick primary and secondary school children involved in the ‘Music as an Instrument of Social Change” programme will also perform.  This programme aims to bring music into the culture of schools, particularly those in the Regeneration areas.  

The event, which will take place from 9:30am to11:30am, is open to members of the public.  Tickets for this event will be on sale at a cost of €25 and are subject to booking fees and online charges. All proceeds from the event will support a Dalai Lama initiative to be established at UL.  Tickets will shortly be available for purchase.  Those interested in purchasing tickets can register their interest by accessing

Set Your Brain to Meditate

Ursula Bates, Billy O'Connor

Ms Ursula Bates, keynote speaker, UL Research Forum and Professor Billy O'Connor

I was delighted to host the  Fourth Annual  University of Limerick Medical School Research Forum last Wednesday, 19 January, where over twenty researchers from the University of Limerick and local teaching hospitals made presentations on topics ranging from pharmaceuticals, biomedical devices, medical technology, community health, gastrointestinal and vascular surgery, psychiatry and communications.

A leading clinical psychologist and Director of Psychosocial and Bereavement Services at Blackrock Hospice, Dublin, Ms Ursula Bates, delivered the keynote address  Mindfulness Based Interventions in Oncology and Palliative Care and Bereavement-Research Advances”.

Ursula’s talk has prompted me to explore in more detail the nature of mindfulness and how its practice can lead to improved brain function and  mental health.

Let’s start by taking a look at the latest scientific research which has shown that  the practice of meditation  actually changes the shape of the brain, allowing specific areas in the brain to grow or change.  This finding has established a new field of contemplative neuroscience – the brain science of meditation – and helps to explain how meditation acts to improve brain function and mental health.

Mindfulness and mindlessness

Have you ever written a cheque in January with the previous years date? …for most of us the answer is probably yes. Scientists now know that these small mistakes are actually the tip of a mindlessness iceberg!  Mindfulness harnesses one of the great themes in all self help literature – the need to be free of unconsciously accepted habits and norms.

Five qualities of a mindful person

  1. Ability to create new categories
  2. Openness to new information
  3. Awareness of more than one perspective
  4. Attention to process (i.e. ‘doing’) rather than outcome or results.
  5. Trusting in one’s own intuition

Over the coming week we will explore these points in more detail and look at ways in which we can learn to break free from the trap of mindlessness.