FENS Voices | Dr Anna Beyeler: On anxiety, mice and an atom microscope
15 September 2022
FENS News, Neuroscience News
Anna Beyeler received her PhD at the University of Bordeaux in 2010, after which she joined the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory (MIT) as a postdoctoral fellow. There, she identified circuit and synaptic mechanisms of emotions in the amygdala, underlying memory formation and retrieval of positive and negative associations. After five years, she started her current lab at Neurocentre Magendie, where her team studies the contribution of circuits of the insular cortex to emotional valence and anxiety, and the alteration of those circuits in pre-clinical models of psychiatric disorders. In 2020, Dr Beyeler was tenured as a principal investigator at the French Institute of Health (INSERM). She also received the INSERM Avenir fund, and is an associate member of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, a FENS member and a FENS-Kavli Network scholar.
What initially attracted you to the field and what do you like about being a neuroscientist?
AB: As a child, I developed a curiosity for mechanisms of animal emotions and behaviours, including those of humans. What I like most about being a neuroscientist is that I formulate hypotheses about brain functions and I test them experimentally. I also really appreciate the collaborative aspect of the job, as I am working with trainees and peers within the institute, as well as researchers from all around the world.
How were your experiences as a student?
AB: I am very grateful to all of my mentors and teachers, as there were many. I have to mention my primary school teacher, who was an important inspiration. I learnt that if you are curious about something you can ask experts and that you can find answers in books (there was no internet back then). I loved school so much that when I was sick I pretended to be in better health in order to not miss one day of classes. I knew I was privileged to grow up in a country where kids (including girls) had access to school and higher education. My Master, PhD and postdoc mentors were crucial in my development, proving to be vital in my career as a neuroscientist, and I am extremely thankful for their time and care.
What advice would you give to students, looking in hindsight at your university years?
AB: My advice to young students would be to not be afraid, to follow their intuition and to build strong relationships with classmates and colleagues. Science is much more fun in the context of a team. You will learn exponentially faster how to study efficiently, how to perform experiments, and how to mentor young students.
Your recent work gravitates on stress and anxiety. Can you tell us something about your latest findings?
AB: We work on the neural circuits that control anxiety. Our rationale is based on a reverse translation of observations made on humans, where we cannot record or test the role of selective neural populations. We focus on neural circuits of the insular cortex as this brain structure has been shown to be overactive in patients with different types of anxiety disorders. In a recent preclinical study performed on mice, we found that the activity of a specific circuit of the insular cortex, which is targeting the basolateral amygdala, is correlated with the level of anxiety of a mouse. This result suggests that this insula-amygdala pathway is one of the elements defining the level of anxiety of individual, and might contribute to the increase of anxiety levels in pathological conditions. We are currently testing this hypothesis.
If you had unlimited funding and resources, what scientific dream would you follow in your research?
AB: As a student, I used to answer that I would build a microscope capable of recording the position of each atom composing a brain, at a microsecond time scale, obviously in a non-invasive way. However, this is far from achievable and would require computational power and storage we cannot even comprehend. Today, my reasonable and still ambitious scientific dream would be to create knowledge on the function of neural circuits controlling anxiety that could help understand how emotions are generated and promote the development of new strategies to treat patients with anxiety disorders.
You will be a FENS Friday speaker on 16 September, during the “Neuroanatomical tract-tracing methods: classic techniques currently going viral” webinar, organised by the FENS Committee for Higher Education and Training (CHET) and moderated by Dr José L. Lanciego. What do you have in store for us?
AB: We prepared a session to briefly introduce classical and modern techniques to map projection pathways between selective regions, including case studies of circuits we already dissected (the amygdala and insular cortex from my side). In the second half of the session, we will open the virtual floor to questions, giving practical advice to students and researchers planning or starting to do neuroanatomical tracing experiments.
Why is FENS Friday important for the neuroscience community?
AB: I believe it is important to have online communication channels to discuss specific techniques and experiments in neuroscience for students and researchers that do not have access to conferences. I am glad to contribute to this session and I plan to follow the next ones with interest.
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