Working for science and scholarship

Pieter Roelfsema (Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience)

This time in Working for Science and Scholarship, we talk to Pieter Roelfsema and Emilie van der Sande of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. Pieter is the director of the institute, and Emilie is a PhD candidate there (read her interview). We put the same questions to both of them.

The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN) examines how the human brain makes awareness, perception, movement, learning, social interaction and other cognitive functions possible. It also studies how brain disorders can disrupt these functions.  

Pieter Roelfsema, Director

Born in Groningen in 1965.

What’s nice about working at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience?
‘It’s a really great institute. And the brain is an appealing subject. Who doesn’t want to know how the human brain works? Thinking about the brain is my hobby, and of course it’s wonderful to turn one’s passion into a career.’

What does NIN’s research mean for everyday life?
‘In an ageing society like ours, brain disorders are one of the biggest challenges. They are the cause of much suffering and already cost society some twenty billion euros a year. We study how healthy brains function, because we have to know how something works normally before we can repair it when it’s broken. My own work involves hooking a camera up to the cerebral cortex. What we hope is that eventually, we can give the blind a rudimentary form of vision that way.’

What type of research appeals to you?
‘I am really fascinated by optogenetics. It involves using light to switch brain cells on and off. We do that by inserting a light-sensitive gene into a brain cell, and that allows us to block or stimulate the cell function. Because we’re working at cellular level, this is a much more accurate method than electrical neurostimulation. Something else that really appeals to me is the possibility of ‘reading’ the brains of paralytics to find out what they want to move and using those brain signals to control a robotic arm. It’s a fantastic leap forward for their autonomy.’

The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience has a Sleep Lab. What keeps you awake at night?
‘I don’t lie awake very often. But if there’s one thing that troubles me at times, it’s how politicians deal with science. For example, I’m very curious as to whether the Government will give science that extra billion euros that the Knowledge Coalition argued for to support the Dutch National Research Agenda. [Note: We talked to Pieter shortly before the new Government’s plants were announced. CJ] If it doesn't, then we'll all have a reason to lie awake at night. People often don’t realise just how important science is for society.’

Which scientist would you put on a pedestal?
‘Wolfram Schultz. About twenty years ago, he discovered cells in our brain that monitor whether a reward is better or worse than we’d expected. When a reward surpasses our expectations, those cells produce a lot of dopamine (a chemical that makes us feel happy). It turns out that this mechanism is very important to learning. The dopamine rush makes us want the same reward again, and so we make an extra effort to do our best.’

Can you name another Academy institute where you’d like to take a look around?
‘I’d like to take a look around NIOO and the Hubrecht Institute. Not only because they work in the life sciences, as we do, but mainly because they’re housed in such wonderful new buildings. We’re starting to think, very cautiously, about new premises, in consultation with the Academy Bureau, and so it would be interesting to see what works and what doesn’t in our colleagues’ buildings.’

Read the interview with Emilie van der Sande, PhD student at NIN.

Interviews: Carel Jansen