Lockdown cuisine & mental health

This week's panel are neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian, and food and obesity geneticist Giles Yeo.....
12 January 2021

Interview with 

Giles Yeo & Barbara Sahakian, University of Cambridge

MAPO_TOFU

A bowl of mapo tofu.

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Joining Phil Sansom on this week's programme are two scientific heavyweights: prolific neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian, and food and obesity geneticist - as well as TV presenter - Giles Yeo. Phil first welcomed Giles...

Giles - Hello, I am doing very well! Thank you very much for having me on. I always love to be on the programme.

Phil - The most exciting thing that I've seen from you recently is your incredible Twitter feed, full of photos of the most amazing food! What have you been cooking?

Giles - This is what I call... well, I started this actually during the first lockdown - we're now in the third lockdown, obviously - and called it lockdown cuisine. I just know how to cook; I'm not actually a cook! So tonight for example is vegan night, tonight I'll be doing tofu, cashew nuts, and vegetables in a spicy black bean sauce with rice!

Phil - I wish I could be invited round to your house.

Giles - You're always welcome.

Phil - What does your 2021 look like scientifically?

Giles - Well, I am, as you said, someone who studies obesity. Specifically, I study how our brain controls food intake. Now until very recently, everything we know about how the brain controls food intake has come from animal models, and particular mice, right? Because we can't legally yet - or ethically for that matter - get into a human brain. However now, with a couple of technological jumps, as well as a collaboration we have set up with the MRC brain bank network within the UK, we now have access to post-mortem human samples. And so we're going to be doing single cell sequencing on a part of the brain called the hypothalamus; and this acts as the fuel sensor. We're funded to do up to about a million of these cells. And so we want to know, actually, what is there in the human hypothalamus? It's all fine to be understanding this from a mouse perspective, but they are small, they have whiskers, and a tail; we don't have whiskers and a tail, and some of us are hairier than others. And so I think we need to understand what happens in the human scenario. That's what I hope to do in 2021.

Phil - What's the point? What does that help us learn?

Giles - A lot of the drugs at the moment that are out there that are used for treating obesity target the brain. And we know they kind of work, because you go through randomised controlled trials; and we know when you inject them into animals, they actually work. But in order to fully really harness the power of these therapeutics, I think we really need to understand what neurons they're actually signaling to. What kind of receptors are on the surface? And these conclusions we're making from animal models, do they actually hold true in humans? I mean, broadly speaking, the circuitry is conserved; but is everything conserved? Are the same type of neurons that exist in mice... do they exist in the human brain? And so that's what we're interested in trying to do.

Phil - And also with us today is Barbara Sahakian. Barbara, welcome!

Barbara - Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

Phil - What does your 2021 look like?

Barbara - Because I focus on cognition, I go across a whole broad range of areas. So one study that we've got going is on understanding the effects of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors on cognition, including on social and emotional cognition. Now the SSRIs, as you may know, are the drugs that we use to treat people who have depression and anxiety. And serotonin, of course, is very important in the brain because it helps us with our normal emotional mood regulation.

Phil - This sounds particularly relevant because of how hard this pandemic has been for so many people.

Barbara - Yes, I think so. Unfortunately, the number of people with anxiety and depression has gone up during this pandemic lockdown. So it is very important to know more about how these drugs affect us.

Phil - Are you looking at anything else pandemic-related? Because there's just so many different aspects and so many ways people have been hit.

Barbara - Yeah. We're very interested. With colleagues at Fudan University, we're looking at education, and what are the specific benefits that promote good education, and what are those that detract from it. And then with colleagues in Manchester and down in London, we've been looking at people before the pandemic started and then after the pandemic, and we have noticed that they have problems in actually emotional cognition and also they have higher symptoms of depression.

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