To understand the brain we need to understand how it is assembled
Name: Thomas Edlund
Thomas Edlund unwinds a fine web of nerve fibres, fibre by fibre in the search for more knowledge about the brain.
Thomas Edlund’s research concerns the central nervous system, how and when it is formed. “It is like with cars. If you want to understand how a car works, you have to know how the engine is designed,” he explains.
Thomas is a Developmental biologist and works with basic research. This means that his results do not often have any direct application that, for instance, could be used in the pharmaceutical industry, at least not yet, but the knowledge he contributes can in the long term result in new pharmaceuticals.
“I am driven by a desire to understand how it works, to come up with basic principles. To understand how the brain works, one must first understand when and how various parts of the nervous system are formed and linked together. In many neurological diseases, different categories of nerve cells in the brain are affected or destroyed. The central nervous system consists of billions of different types of cells. If some of them can be studied in detail, more medicines can also be developed and that is something being worked on around the world,” he says.
It is thanks to the central nervous system (CNS) that we have an image of the world around us.
“All information that we receive from around us, all signals that our senses transmit, whether it is hot or cold, smells and so on must be coordinated so that we can generate a perception and determine if it is dangerous or not. A signal is sent to the brain and processed there so that we can know how we should act. Without this system, we wouldn’t survive very long,” confirms Thomas Edlund.
His research is focused on when different parts of the nervous system are formed in a embryo and which signals control the process.
“We have discovered that the CNS is formed much earlier than previously believed. Almost the first cells generated in the embryo are destined to form the most complicated part of the brain. The rest of the central nervous system then develop from these early brain cells.”
“It begins with a few cells in the embryo receiving signals to form nerve cells. When the embryo grows, more are formed and then they receive signals to start building the front parts of the brain, the telencephalon, the most complex parts where awareness is located. It surprised us that this was such an early decision. This discovery means that researchers now know that the cells can in principle be controlled.”
The brain is home to several billion nerve cells. All of them can hardly be mapped, but that is not necessary either, according to Edlund. “The important aspect is how they are connected together. It must be the right number at the right time; that decides who one becomes. We consist of what we have received from our parents and primitive reflexes.”
But in spite of this, he does not want to go so far as to claim that we are completely genetically controlled.
“The environment also plays a role. This can be seen from identical twins who grow up in different environments.”
However, he is still surprised that the formation of the central nervous system and the brain seldom goes wrong.
“It is an extremely complex process. But it can also go wrong when our environment change, when evolution cannot keep up.” This is something he believes is happening now and is causing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
“I am convinced that it is related to the central nervous system. Consequently, I am in the midst of shifting the emphasis of my research and returning to diabetes research, where I once began. There is a direct connection in the brain to caloric intake and metabolism.”
Name: Thomas Edlund
Profession: Professor in Molecular Genetics
Favourite researcher of all times: Tom Jessell
Hidden talent: Handy
Best in his record collection: Joe Cocker, “Up where we belong”
Likes to eat and drink: Italian foot, red wine