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Spotlight on Dr Charlotte Rae
By: Alexander Aghajanian
Last updated: Monday, 1 April 2019
Research Fellow at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School
As a teenager I asked myself: what's the most complex interesting system that exists? The answer seemed to me the human brain, which is why I always wanted to study psychology and neuroscience in university.
My first degree was in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, and I picked all the neuroscience options as part of that. I then stayed on to do a one-year Masters in neuroscience at Oxford and then worked for one year as a research assistant while I figured out if I wanted to go on to do a PhD. It was quite soon obvious, the answer was yes.
I moved to Cambridge to the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, where I did my doctorate. I trained in using MRI brain scanning techniques to understand the structure and function of the human brain. After completing my doctorate, a postdoc position at Sussex was posted on the first day that I properly started job hunting. As soon as I saw the advert, I was like, yeah that's it.
My postdoc work is focused in particular on Tourette's syndrome, which is this interesting neurological condition where people experience involuntary movements and speech acts called “tics”. The remarkable thing about people with Tourette's syndrome is that they often show on the flipside this ability to temporarily suppress and withhold tics. My experiments, supervised by Prof Hugo Critchley, have been looking at the nature of the structure-function of the brain with people with Tourette's to uncover what might be triggering tics in the first place and then how can they also make use of this remarkable ability to suppress tics.
When people with Tourette syndrome see emotional faces, functional connectivity increases between an emotion centre of the brain, the insula, and movement regions: why tics might get worse in stressful social situations.
I am interested in how the human brain enables us to produce the right behaviour for the situation, but also in line with our longer term goals. So day to day we need to do things like when we are hungry go and get lunch, or as a student we need to plan what lectures you are going to through the day, but a lot of this is underpinning our longer term goals such as getting a job in this field or area.
A lot of your decision making and your actions are influenced by what your body is telling you. For example, if you are really stressed and your heart is beating really fast it might be that you are more likely to engage in one type of behaviour than when you are relaxed.
In order to be able to meet both short and long term goals, a lot of what we need to do is actually stop ourselves from doing things. It could be very tempting to reach for a whole packet of biscuits because they are there rather than going out and getting a healthy lunch. It can be quite tempting to procrastinate in the library rather than cracking on. These fundamental processes in the human brain actually go wrong in quite a lot of neurological conditions, so half of my work is looking at the basic science mechanisms and the other half is applying this translationally.
Working on Tourette's syndrome is really important because it's a very under-investigated condition. There are currently very limited treatments available for people with Tourette's that are 100% effective in all individuals. Translational patient work is vital, as you are able to explain to patients that they are suffering from a neurological condition. Additionally, once we know what’s going on in terms of the mechanisms we can then look at therapies and treatments.
A big gap in the data is how sleep, exercise and diet impact on our ability to control movement and stop ourselves from certain behaviours, such as eating unhealthy food. People with tics often report that sleep is a big problem for them. The idea of my research going forward is in understanding how our ability to control behaviour and movement might be going off the boil when you are not sleeping as much or exercising as much.
I love doing what I do, I love the research side of things and I also really enjoy teaching. I have been very lucky that my PI has supported me to take up teaching opportunities when they've been offered.
I really enjoy activities that we could put under the umbrella of academic citizenship. Over the last few years at Sussex, I set up a neuroimaging methods seminar group which brings together PhD students, postdocs and PIs doing MRI brain scanning at Sussex across different departments. I realised that because of geographical dispersal this sort of ECR group community wasn't really meeting up as much as would be useful. So I set up this regular methods group, which is essentially peer-to-peer skill sharing and a discussion forum so that we are all as up-skilled as possible.
Every time I've got an opportunity where I am in a privileged position to talk publicly about my experience as a scientist I always try and get diversity in there somehow. As a PhD student I didn't feel it was much of an issue, but as you gain more experience and you spend more time in the environment you start to notice things. When I was much younger I used to think oh it's a generational thing. Now I realise it's not, it's structural. The attitude that I come to now is that I can't change the structure just by myself, but I can be part of changing the structure by remaining within it. It’s tempting sometimes to do other things but I feel that you have to be part of the team to change the way the team is operating.