PROF AMANDA ELLISON Q&A
Published on September 18, 2020
Having completed a postdoc fellowship at Oxford University funded by Animal Free Research UK, Amanda, a neuroscientist who has been in the field for over 20 years, is now on our board of trustees to help champion human relevant science.
Amanda is also a successful author, where her latest book, ‘Splitting – The Inside Story on Headaches’, tells the fascinating true story about headaches, and the secrets they reveal about your brain and overall health.
We caught up with Amanda recently to talk about her book and her work in animal free research.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background:
I’m a professor of neuroscience at Durham University and I am interested in how the brain works together with our body to bring about our behaviours. I also want to know how different parts of the brain talk to each other.
Did you always want to be a scientist? And what motivated you to become a scientist?
I kind of fell into it. But being a scientist really suits me. I never got past the “Why? ” stage and putting that together with a desire to help people with poor brain health means there is always a motivation.
How did you get into your field of work?
The brain is such an enigmatic organ. You can look at the anatomy of the heart and it won’t take long to work out it is basically a pretty snazzy pump. But if you look at the brain’s anatomy, it tells you nothing about what it does and it turns out, it does EVERYTHING!! I am really excited by that, and finding out how it works to bring about our behaviours and how our behaviours in turn affect how our brains work is the kind of knotty problem I love to work on.
How did you first get involved with Animal Free Research UK?
After my PhD I went to work at Oxford University to help develop Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation as a technique to understand what the human brain does by sending magnetic pulses into the head. It switches on that part of the brain for a very brief period of time and so you can work out what that area does without having to lesion a monkey brain (which is what would have happened before). Because of its animal replacement potential, this postdoc fellowship was funded by Animal Free Research UK, and that was the beginning of my relationship with them.
Why did you decide to go in the direction of focusing on research without the use of animals?
I have always had a conceptual issue with using animals for research. There are huge questions to be asked around the human relevance of findings gained from animal research. That’s why making sure we continue to development of replacement techniques as credible alternatives is so important.
What are the main motivations to explore the use of non-animals methods?
Relevance is the key here. How many years could we have wiped off the R&D of various drug or treatment developments by focusing on what works in the human as opposed to animals that ultimately don’t work in the human?
What are the main hurdles to the development of alternative methods to animal experiments in your field of research?
There are two. From the science point of view “The Done Thing” is very powerful. Academic science is very results and publication driven, there isn’t much room for speculation or meandering development. You need results and you need them quickly for career development. That can lead people to park their replacement ideals as there may be an animal which is used in their lab that is a sure thing, which is more attractive than the possibly riskier non-animal way. Funding from the big research councils is awarded on the proviso of success, so step changes such as developing an animal replacement technique seems very risky for them.
The second is political. All new drugs and treatments need to be tested on two animal species (usually rats/mice and dogs). This has led to the ridiculous situation that even if a new human relevant treatment has been developed without using animals in the process, this treatment needs to be “validated” in the animals or back translated to animals to understand its mechanism of action. This is, in one word, unnecessary, and in another, bonkers.
From your own experience, do you find that the replacement of the use of animals in medical research is becoming more accepted in the science community?
I do, which is gratifying. The interesting shift has been in its normalisation which to new researchers seems like a fait accompli. But there are reasons why the likes of imaging and brain stimulation techniques don’t count as “animal replacement” techniques anymore. They are mainstream human neuroscientific techniques. However, this has been a long road that isn’t always obvious to the casual observer.
What advice would you give someone who wants to go into animal free research?
Do it. Always question “The Done Thing”. Things don’t have to be the way they are, there is always another way. If you are a young or early career researcher, you may be in awe of your professors, but remember, they are people too who are working within their own constraints. Just like everybody else, the knowledge that more senior academics have about the wider world outside of their own box of research is reliant on their environment and interactions with people like you. So don’t be afraid to put your ideas before them and enter into constructive debate. That’s how you change the world.
If you already are a senior academic, you have spent your career so far looking for ways to improve human health. Given the successes of animal replacement methodologies and techniques thus far, your leadership would reinforce this necessary step-change. It is now clear that human relevant research is a more direct pathway to improving human health. So it is time be part of the future norm and not the past.
You have recently released your second book, ‘Splitting: The Inside Story on Headaches’ – can you tell us a bit about it?
My first book (Getting your Head around the Brain) was a grand tour around the brain through the lens of our behaviours. With this book, I wanted to make the link about how our behaviours and the things we choose to do and put into our bodies can change what happens in our head and can sometimes cause us pain. Not all really bad headaches are migraines in the same way that a bad cold is not the flu. This book let me break it all down so that each broad headache class could have its time in the sun. It looks at causes, what is happening in your head, and treatments and why they work. And because I am insatiably curious, there are lots of fun things to find out along the way, from why physical attraction might make you sneeze all the way to why your partner’s sartorial choices may cause your headache. Headaches are painful, but reading about them doesn’t have to be.
What inspired you to write the book? Why the story about headaches?
Most everybody has experienced a headache of some description but it is very misunderstood as a concept. According to the World Health Organisation, headache is underestimated, underdiagnosed and under treated which is hardly surprising because in England alone, headache is not on the curriculum of 75% of medical schools. It is a huge societal and personal burden and so this was a big driver for me to write this book. The more people know about headaches and where they come from, the more they can help themselves when they happen. Readers should also find out more about how they tick in the process!
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
Whilst everybody agrees that headache happens in our head, what is less accepted is how our everyday lives and the things we do might cause them. By helping individuals understand where their headaches come from in an accessible way and what they can do through their behaviours to combat them, they should feel more control over their head health. There isn’t a single most effective way to combat all types of headaches, what I suggest is a more personalized approach. It’s about helping all of the people all of the time instead of some of the people some of the time. Nobody knows you better than you; using this knowledge to help yourself could change your life.
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