Introducing Dr Camilla Nord, BrainBox Initiative Conference Speaker

Dr. Camilla Nord is a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge who works on brain stimulation and neuroimaging in the context of neuropsychiatric disorders. Camilla completed her undergraduate degree in Physiology and Psychology at Magdalen College, University of Oxford and her postgraduate degrees in Neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London (UCL), working with Prof. Jonathan Roiser to test transcranial direct current stimulation as an adjunct to cognitive behavioural therapy in depression. Subsequently, she trained with Dr. Valerie Voon in Cambridge on novel transcranial magnetic stimulation approaches to alter habitual decision-making. She is now based at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.

Tell us about your PhD thesis and what institution you’re from.
My PhD is in Neuroscience, from University College London, entitled “The role of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex dysfunction in depression and its treatment with non-invasive brain stimulation”

What is your current area of study?
My research focuses on the brain and behavioural changes that occur in depression and other psychiatric disorders, and how neuroscience techniques (e.g. brain stimulation and functional MRI) can help us optimise treatments for mental health disorders.

Why did you pursue this idea? Is this something particularly personal to you?
It’s not personal to me, but I’m interested in mental health disorders because they have traditionally been quite separate from the rest of medicine, both in practice and in popular conception, because of pervasive (but fallacious) mind/brain dualism. I think neuroscience is ideally placed to shed light on the neural origins of mental health symptoms, and potentially reveal new ways to target them.

What equipment do you currently use?
In terms of brain stimulation, I have just finished a paired associative stimulation study that uses two Magstim TMS coils and Brainsight neuronavigation software. In the past, I have used Neuroconn tDCS machines.

What have been some of the recent exciting advances in technology for brain research?
I am quite keen to see how closed-loop brain stimulation technology develops, both invasive and noninvasive forms. It’s also been amazing to see how the technology to simulate brain stimulation has developed since I began working in the field – this could really help us refine stimulation approaches and personalise them for individuals.

How do you think multimodal applications will further our understanding of neurological diseases?
When I think of brain stimulation research, I see it as an essential tool in the arsenal of neuroscience, and its utility really becomes apparent in the context of multimodal applications. For instance: you can use multimodal imaging techniques to image activation (e.g. functional MRI) or local neurotransmitter release (e.g. arterial spin labelling), but brain stimulation has the unique ability to causally disrupt specific networks in the brain. In the context of neurological (and in my opinion, psychiatric) disorders, this could built new, targeted interventions for specific neural dysfunctions associated with pathologies (which could then be measured and refined using imaging techniques).

Which new non-invasive brain stimulation applications or research avenues are you keen to see develop?
I’m interested to see how tACS (transcranial alternating current stimulation) develops – it’s not a technique I’ve used myself, but I think it could have particularly useful applications for cognitions and/or disorders that involve specific changes in coupling between brain regions. More selfishly, I would like to see development in noninvasive targeting of deep brain structures (with a good degree of specificity for the deep cortical or subcortical region targeted). To this end, I’m very interested in the recent report of focused ultrasound stimulation of the anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala by Davide Folloni, Jerome Sallet and colleagues (preprint in bioRxiv) and hope this technique develops even further – if so, I’d be hoping to train in it.

What are the questions we need to be addressing in brain research?
In my field, the two key questions relate to aetiology – where do psychiatric disorders come from? – and treatment: how can they best be prevented or treated? Brain research has made reasonable progress with respect to the first question, revealing a series of genetic, social, and developmental paths that lead to altered brain networks, and, in some cases, disorders. Neuroscience has not yet made real headway when it comes to the second, although we do have a better understanding of existing treatments and why they are effective on some people but not others, which I think is an important piece of the puzzle.

How would you say we should go about addressing them?
Addressing these complex questions will combine the expertise of more fields than I can name. But on a small scale, I think there is progress being made across a number of psychiatric disorders as we move from more general symptoms (e.g. anxiety) to more specific measures that can be quantified (including behavioural measures, brain measures, and even peripheral measures). This increased specificity – to which I think computational techniques are contributing enormously – is yielding more precise targets to use in refining treatments, whether that be psychological, pharmacological, or brain stimulation. But there is still a ways to go, both in identifying the core quantifiable disruptions in psychiatric symptom dimensions, and in improving our techniques of treating these disruptions.

Where do you see the future of brain research heading?
There has been an increased bent toward lifespan brain research recently, and I think this is very much for the best, revealing not just what a healthy 20-something brain looks like, but rather how networks develop and change over time with age. I would be remiss not to mention the impact that large-scale collaborative projects have had on brain research as well, in particular as a way of addressing the sometimes low-powered findings in our field.

Who are your key influences?
Most obviously, my PhD supervisor, Professor Jonathan Roiser at UCL, but also Professors Catherine Harmer and Charlotte Stagg, both neuroscientists at Oxford whose work I admire considerably.

Do you have any advice for other early career researchers?
Strive for efficiency. In research, there are no prizes for the longest hours spent in the office.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in the lab?
I enjoy reading fiction and practicing handstands (never at the same time).

Finally, what is the title of your upcoming talk at the BrainBox Initiative Conference 2018?
“Translating noninvasive brain stimulation from the lab to the clinic: problems and possibilities for mental health research”

Thank you, Camilla. We look forward to hearing more from you at the upcoming BrainBox Initiative Conference.

Dr Camilla Nord will be speaking at the BrainBox Initiative Conference on the 27-28 September at the Wellcome Collection, London.