The New Mind Behind MiNDS: Dr. Flávio Kapczinski
Dr. Flávio Kapczinski is the Director of the MiNDS program and a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences. Following a successful research career in Brazil, Dr. Kapczinski became a faculty member at McMaster in 2016. He further transitioned into the role of MiNDS Director this past September. I recently sat down with Dr. Kapczinski to discuss his career path, his vision for the MiNDS program, and his advice for graduate students.
How would you describe your career as a researcher?
I have worked in the field of mood disorders for the past 20 years. My particular focus has been bipolar disorder. In a nutshell, we’re trying to figure out why people with chronic mood disorders complain of cognitive impairments and have a higher propensity toward developing dementia.
We initially set forth to analyze blood biomarkers of patients suffering from bipolar disorder. We discovered oxidative stress and low-grade inflammation in these patients. These findings suggested some sort of systemic toxicity during an episode of depression; not just in bipolar disorder, but in depression as a whole. Having that in mind, we connected the changes in biomarkers with volumetric changes in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Together with Dr. Michael Berk in Australia, we theorized that pathological brain rewiring occurs in people with mood disorders – we named this concept neuroprogression. Neuroprogression accounts for changes in the brain, changes in neurocognition, and changes in bodily systems that take place with chronic mood disorders.
Along with collaborators such as Dr. Benicio Frey and Dr. Nick Bock, our group at McMaster has found that the changes happening in the brain are related to white matter and intercortical myelin. We believe that peripheral immune activation translates into neuroinflammation, particularly through microglial and astrocyte activation, and thereby affects oligodendrocyte integrity. The end result is suboptimal myelination of axons and poor signal transmission between different brain systems.
Is your work here at McMaster a continuation of the research program you started in Brazil?
Everything we started over there, we are implementing here. We have established a laboratory component studying blood biomarkers, plus an imaging component. We also do experiments in neuronal cell cultures, which we differentiate into neurons. If we treat neuronal cultures with patients’ blood, it reduces neuronal sprouting. Some sort of toxic inflammatory factor, which we haven’t yet identified precisely, alters these neuronal cultures.
People associate depression with this feeling of sadness, but it’s not usually thought of as something that is damaging or toxic. This line of thought suggests that chronic mood disorders have a strong immunological component. One approach might be to predict when patients will have a flare-up, and then treat the flare-up more intensely. When they are not having these flare-ups, perhaps they should be left alone. That’s what our research suggests – that patients wouldn’t need to be taking medications all the time.
How have your research interests evolved throughout your career? Have you always studied bipolar disorder?
To carry out my PhD, I went to Maudsley Hospital at Kings College, London, UK, where I was working in the field of anxiety. I then went to McGill University for my postdoc, where we studied serotonin and serotonin depletion in patients with depression and borderline personality disorder. In Brazil, I started working with bipolar patients and with this neuroprogression idea. At that time we didn’t call it neuroprogression, but we were already intrigued by the fact that some patients with chronic mood disorders seemed to develop a more severe disorder after they experienced a lot of mood episodes.
Having spent the majority of your career in Brazil, have you noticed any differences in the way we conduct research here at McMaster?
When you are working in cutting edge research, all institutions are kind of similar – they try to keep a competitive edge. In that sense, Brazil is no different from Canada, the US, or Europe. What I find different about McMaster is that it’s very integrated; more strongly than I found in Brazil. For example, in our research here, we collaborate with people like Dr. Nick Bock, who is a physicist working in the department of psychology. We also collaborate with biomedical engineers for our analysis, and hopefully we will soon start to collaborate with immunologists. That’s been a very good surprise!
Are your graduate students experts in your collaborators’ fields? How do you manage a lab which utilizes such diverse techniques?
What we try to do is blur the boundaries. I usually have half and half – people who are from the more basic sciences working with biomarkers, and people from the psychiatry or psychology field doing more clinical work. At the end of the day, people from my lab become experts in mood disorders, bringing different components to the equation.
You have a very impressive publication record, with over 430 peer reviewed articles and over 22,000 citations. What advice can you offer regarding impactful research?
I look at science as a collective creation. I don’t believe in the isolated scientist in a bubble. If you have an active group and good collaborators, you are much more likely to be successful. I always thought that, being a psychiatrist, I would do a much better job if I could interact strongly with basic neuroscientists, so that’s what I did. That’s my recommendation for people who are mainly in the wet lab doing classical neuroscience - connect with clinical neuroscientists. I understand that basic and clinical science both have their merits, but I am a firm believer in translational neuroscience. Since McMaster is so strong in health research, it creates a unique opportunity to have this translational experience.
The Institutional Quality Assurance Process (IQAP) is currently underway for MiNDS. You hosted a retreat this past February to discuss the future of the MiNDS program. How do you envision the MiNDS program evolving in the next 5 years? What initiatives are you interested in promoting?
I think it would be ideal for us to have a physical location, something like a Neuroscience Institute at McMaster. Currently, our students grow in their neuroscience knowledge, but only in their specific area. If we could have more of a physical interaction, that would facilitate collaboration.
A few of us in the program are also interested in building a living brain bank. We could incorporate the sophisticated assessments that our colleagues from psychology do, the neuroimaging that our imagers do, and also collect our biomarkers. I think we could develop the initiative of donating brains, not only for patients, but also for people who age successfully. It would be great to see what’s going on in the brains of people who have great cognitive capabilities. If we knew more about healthy aging, and contrasted those findings with the pathology of mood disorders and neuropsychiatric disorders, we could help so many more individuals.
It’s important not only to know more about the human brain and mind, but also to give back to the community and society, and have a clear impact on the lives of people. This is how I see our group progressing over time – putting our capabilities to the service of the community for improved mental health, improved health in general, and more productive life as an outcome of the science we produce.
The admissions process for incoming MiNDS students is currently underway. What qualities do you look for in a prospective student?
A good grad student comes from a good undergrad. Someone who is committed and has worked hard would have the necessary background to flourish in the MiNDS program. The ability to work in multidisciplinary teams, a passion for science, and an open attitude for research, which is the strength of our program, would perhaps make the ideal candidate.
What is your biggest piece of advice for current graduate students?
I would encourage students to not only keep working hard in the laboratory, but also connect with colleagues and with the research being done at McMaster. Keep up to date with the current debates that are taking place in neuroscience and attend meetings as much as possible. Try to develop a sense of the future of neuroscience, because that’s where the next generation is going to go. We’re not going to do whatever research is being done today – we’re going to do things in this new and different world ahead of us.