Barbara Sahakian

What are you most trying to accomplish in your work? 

I am trying to accomplish through my research work the ability to measure cognition using objective computerised touchscreen methods. I have co-invented tests for ‘cold’ cognition, or non-emotional cognition (the CANTAB tests (www.cantab.com), which are now provided by Cambridge Cognition (www.cambridgecognition.com), a spin-out of the University of Cambridge). My research is aimed at understanding the neural basis of cognitive, emotional and behavioural dysfunction to develop more effective pharmacological and psychological treatments. The focus of my lab is on early detection of neuropsychiatric disorders, differential diagnosis and proof of concept studies using cognitive enhancing drugs and cognitive training. I am best known for my work on cognitive enhancement using pharmacological treatments, early detection of Alzheimer's disease, cognition and depression and neuroethics. With co-authors, I published some of the first proof of concept studies in The Lancet for the cholinesterase inhibitors, which are now used as treatments for the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, I have co-invented EMOTICOM, which is a set of computerised tests using touch-screen technology for ‘hot’ cognition, or emotional and social cognition. I have also co-invented a Memory Game, which runs on an iPad, for improving brain function. I hope to improve cognitive function through different means, including cognitive enhancing drugs (smart drugs), in patient groups, so that they will have better functionality, quality of life and wellbeing. I also hope to improve cognition and wellbeing in healthy people, so that people will experience good brain health throughout their lives.

What do you think sets your work apart from the work of others in your field?

• Integration: My research is in the fields of psychopharmacology, neuropsychology and neuropsychiatry, and it is the research at the interaction of these for which I have made outstanding and novel contributions. For example, I have made a contribution to the field of pharmacogenomics (Roiser, J.P., Cook L.J., Cooper J.D., Rubinsztein, D.C., Sahakian, B.J. (2005). Association of a functional polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene with abnormal emotional processing in ecstasy users. Am J Psychiatry, 162, 609-612). • Innovation: I have co-invented CANTAB, EMOTICOM and am now working on cognitive training using games on an iPad • Engaging the public in science: I have a strong interest in engaging the public in science through the media, science festivals and my book ‘Bad Moves: How decision making goes wrong, and the ethics of smart drugs’. • Neuroethics: I have a strong interest in neuroscience and society. I am a founder member of the International Neuroethics Society and am the current President of the Society. I am the Co-Editor of the Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics. • Mentoring and encouraging women in neuroscience: I have been on the Women in Neuroscience Committee for the Society for Neuroscience and I am on the University of Cambridge Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative (WiSETI).

What or who inspired you to get into your field? Do you have any individuals or groups of people that you credit with helping you achieve the goals you set out to accomplish?

I have been fortunate to have a number of mentors and also longstanding collaborators. They have been very inspirational. Dr Hermann Hauser is currently advising me and I find his knowledge in the area of innovation and technology inspirational. My main research collaborators over a number of years are Professor Trevor Robbins, Professor Barry Everitt and Professor Angela Roberts, and I have always been inspired by their creativity and knowledge. Others who I have found inspiring for their vision include: Sir John Beddington, Sir Mark Walport, Lord Rees, Sir Robin Murray, Sir Keith Peters, Dr John Williams, Dame Uta Frith, Professor Michael Morgan, Professor Steven Hyman, Professor Torsten Wiesel, Lord Ara Darzi, Professor Susan Iversen and Professor Leslie Iversen. In addition, I have been inspired by my PhD students, as they are very dedicated and enthusiastic young scientists, who will contribute to the understanding of the brain and mental health disorders, and by doing this, create a better future. I have been inspired by my daughters, Jacqueline and Miranda Robbins, who are now neuroscientists. They have always supported me through their contributions to my lectures and articles. I also am inspired by the patients who have given generously of their time and have participated in the research studies in my laboratory.

What role has serendipity played in the turning points in your career? 

When I was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at MIT, an Assistant Professorship post came up at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the Department of Neurology, working with Professor David Drachman. I was appointed to this post. This allowed us to start one of the earliest Memory Clinics for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. This experience helped to provide a model for one of the first clinics in the UK for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, which I set up, together with Professor Raymond Levy and colleagues. The Memory Clinic provided recruitment of mild-Alzheimer patients for the early studies with cholinesterase inhibitor drugs. This clinic also provided recruitment of mild-Alzheimer patients for studies on early detection of episodic memory problems using CANTAB PAL.

What have been the greatest challenges that you have encountered in your career?

My greatest challenge was combining a career as an international neuroscientist and academic with having a family and raising children. However, this was also an extremely rewarding experience. The second greatest challenge was co-inventing the CANTAB tests, which are now provided by Cambridge Cognition, a spin-out of the University of Cambridge.

Do you believe leaders and innovators have certain qualities that they all share? If so, what?

Yes, I believe that leaders and innovators have certain qualities which are shared. These include: • A vision for a better future • The ability to engage others successfully in your vision and to inspire others• Creativity • Resilience in the face of stress, disappointments or setbacks • Confidence in yourself • Excitement, enthusiasm and a positive outlook • Respect for others and congratulating the success of others in your team • A keen interest in learning about new ideas, technologies and discoveries.

How would you most like to change the world through your work?

• I would like good mental health to be considered by Governments and Society to be every bit as important as good physical health. • I would like to see chronic, relapsing mental health disorders, such as depression, be a feature of the past through prevention or early detection and early effective treatment. • I would like to see technology used more in mental health care. In particular, I would like to see the widespread use of cognitive training using games on phones or tablets to improve brain function. • I would like to see neuroprotective drugs for Alzheimer’s disease administered to people early in the stage of the disease before they have impairments in functionality, quality of life and wellbeing. • I would like to see early detection of mental health disorders in young people, since we know that 75% of mental health disorders start before the age of 24 years. • I would like to see cognitive enhancing drugs (smart drugs) being used to improve cognitive function in people with neuropsychiatric disorders. This includes the development of novel, more effective cognitive enhancing drugs for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia.

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