26 October 2015

The professor sleeps on a specific side


Maiken Nedergaard studies brain cells to find new ways of treating diseases. A job that influences her sleeping habits.

Professor Maiken Nedergaard (Photo: Novo Nordisk Foundation)

by Mikkel Andreas Beck mikkel.beck@sund.ku.dk 

When Maiken Nedergaard decided to study medicine, it was actually a coincidence combined with the fact that her father’s family includes quite a few priests.

“I was brought up in the knowledge that as human beings we must help make the world a better place, and doctors accomplish this by helping patients. But honestly, my educational choice did not spring from profound considerations. It sounded exciting that’s all. I was only 18 years old and didn’t really know much about what being a doctor entailed, “ says the now 58-year-old professor of neurology with a smile.

Why brain research?

“Well, medicine turned out to be a great subject. And once I was seriously engaged, it occurred to me that the best and most ambitious teachers were researchers. There is so much we have yet to discover, so much to examine in the brain. But it’s not all about unmapped territory; it’s also about the many implications. Psychiatric diseases are interesting. If you scan the brain of a person with a mental illness, it looks normal, only it’s not.”

How does your research benefit society?

“We must take huge steps, not little baby steps, in brain research. It’s about people. It’s not merely research for the sake of research; it’s research that brings forth knowledge that will help people. I’m highly interested in the brain’s support cells, astrocytes and glia cells, which have hitherto been rather overlooked in research. It’s not only the size of the human brain that enables us to do so much. Whales and elephants also have huge brains; only they’re not as smart as we are.

“The astrocytes are the only type of brain cell that have changed markedly through the thousands of years it has taken to develop the human brain, and I believe that its development is one of the reasons that we as a species are able to do so much. However, it is most likely also why we suffer mental illnesses such as schizophrenia as well as neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. The fact that our brains are so highly developed, also allows for much more to go wrong. There is fantastic potential in understanding glia cells because they are by far the most common in our brain, and we do not yet understand their functions. Basically, I try to understand glia cells to come up with new ways of treating diseases.

“Among other things, I was part of the team that revealed that sleep is not merely a question of the brain resting and relaxing, because our brain does in fact not relax during sleep. Sleep in fact cleanses our brain. And this discovery is important because it affords sleep a distinct biological function. Previously, we would regard sleep as a time of rest for the brain. Glia cells are responsible for the cleansing that occurs during sleep, and our brain uses almost as much energy during this process as it does when we are awake. Presumably we will end up with a – we can call it a dirty brain – if it is not cleansed. And a dirty brain will initiate an inflammatory process, which will lead to a loss of nerve cells and dementia. Many diseases are closely linked to poor sleeping patterns. If you don’t sleep well or enough, it’s like shutting off your dishwasher mid-programme. We may in fact be able to prevent illnesses such as Alzheimer’s by sleeping correctly.”

Talk about a career high

“What I enjoy most is searching for and locating the data which will eventually come together and shape a discovery much like the one about the importance of sleep. But I was also happy when earlier this year, we were awarded a prize for the most important discovery published in Science. Naturally, you do not become a researcher for personal fame, but in a wider perspective, I believe that it’s important that research reaches the news media. Otherwise young people will only be exposed to pop stars and football players. You won’t recognize a Nobel Prize-winner on the bus, but they will most likely influence our life to a much greater degree than the football player everybody recognizes. Awards and Prizes communicate the importance of research, and we need attention to draw young people into this field, quite simply because young researchers are our future, if we wish to reduced the sufferings that millions of people experience on a daily basis.”

Which part of your job, do you like the best?

“Going from something abstract to something concrete is fun. Like when my colleague Helene Benveniste and I discovered that sleeping on your side is better, as this improves the cleansing process. However, the greatest joy is working with young talented researchers. To watch them discover that they know more than they think they do, and that their data is as important if not more so than what they read in current literature. Experiencing their energy and diligence is wonderful.”

What do you do outside work?

“My husband, Steve Goldman, and I have five children between the ages 16-25, so most of my time is spent keeping up with their lives and development. One of our kids is finishing secondary school, one is a medical student, one is attending college, one is enrolled at some sort of nature school, and finally, one is a geology student.

In closing, when you go to bed tonight, which side will you be sleeping on?
“I sleep on my right side, because that leaves the heart in a raised position. And this helps lessen the work that the heart has to do as our brain is cleansed,” Maiken Nedergaard concludes with a smile.