New Academy professors working on neuroscience and climate challenges

The University of Helsinki’s new Academy professors Eero Castrén and Anu Wartiovaara are seeking solutions to neuroscientific challenges. Academy Professor Markku Kulmala is taking his climate research to Siberia and China.

Eero Castrén, neuroscientist, studies the molecular mechanisms of neuronal plasticity in the adult brain.

He has previously established that a molecule used in an antidepressant increases the plasticity of the adult brain. As the plasticity of the brain is very limited after the critical period of development, his research results have opened the possibility to study these brain functions and the treatment of related illnesses.

“In this project, we are trying to deepen our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of neuronal plasticity and develop new methods to observe and image the adapting brain, on the one hand, and on the other, to bring the findings from our basic research towards practical applications by developing diagnostic methods and new treatment practices for brain diseases.  

Castrén has worked on the same research topic for two decades, the past few years funded by an ERC Advanced Grant.

"Recent findings have taken the research in new, unforeseen directions. The Academy professorship enables us to continue this research and to develop further new initiatives.”

The Academy professorship also means job security for the next five years.

“That means a lot, since my term as director of the Neuroscience Centre will expire in one year.”

Potential treatments for mitochondrial diseases

Neuroscience research at the University of Helsinki received a total of 12 grants in the Academy of Finland’s spring application round. The University's second new Academy of Finland professor, Anu Wartiovaara also focuses on neuroscience.

Together with her research group, Wartiovaara is using molecular data to find treatment methods for mitochondrial diseases.

Mitochondrial diseases are severe energy metabolism disorders, of which only a few are treatable. While mitochondrial diseases are the most common type of hereditary metabolic disorder, they are poorly understood despite the up to two thousand afflicted persons found in Finland. Parkinson’s disease also seems to be associated with mitochondrial disorders.

 “Fully understanding how mitochondrial diseases impact cell function will help us develop treatments for common neurodegenerative diseases.”

Thanks to Wartiovaara’s group, thousands of patients around the world have now been diagnosed based on gene tests, and consequently know precisely what is causing their disease. The recent work suggests that some severe brain or muscular disorders could be treated with B vitamins. 

“We are in a golden age of biomedical research. During the past decade, research methods have taken such strides that in practice, research is only limited by our imagination.”

Anu Wartiovaara considers the Academy of Finland professorship a very important form of funding for her research group.

“We will now be able to focus on research even more intensely. My group is vulnerable, as it is almost completely dependent on competitive funding.”

Climate research in Siberia and China

One of the world’s leading researchers of the physics and chemistry of atmospheric aerosols, Markku Kulmala, has received his third Academy of Finland professorship. He also served as an Academy of Finland professor in 2004-2009 and 2011–2015.

 “This is significant both for my own research and the international academic community. I will be able to fully focus on my research.”

Kulmala is studying the impact of human action and natural processes on the climate as well as air quality.

“Many of humanity's biggest challenges, such as climate and air quality along with sustainable water, food and energy are interconnected. During my term as Academy professor I will seek to understand what is happening in Siberia and, on the other hand, in major Chinese cities, in terms of the interaction between air quality and climate in these areas.”

The Academy of Finland appointed a total of eight new Academy of Finland professors on 22 June. Their five-year terms will begin on 1 January 2017.

Academy of Finland: Academy professors