Animal research ethics in the Human Brain Project: Q&A with Abdul K.H. Mohammed

Abdul Kadir H. Mohammed at the HBP Curriculum Workshop ‘Research, ethics & societal impact’ at Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, November 2018. Photo credits: HBP Education

Abdul Kadir H. Mohammed is Senior Professor at Linnaeus University (Sweden) and Associated at the Karolinska Institute (Sweden). He has been part of the Human Brain Project (HBP) since its start in 2013. His responsibilities at the HBP have included animal research ethics within the Ethics Support work package and organising ethics workshops within the framework of HBP Education programme. At the end of 2018 Abdul will leave the HBP to focus on new research projects. In this Q&A he shares his experience with the HBP and tells about his future research endeavors.

Q1: How did you get involved in the Human Brain Project?

I became involved in the HBP following a warm, cordial invitation letter from Yadin Dudai and Jean-Pierre Changeux, to join forces with them and others in the initial stages of preparations for the application of the one billion euros EU project. I was familiar with Dudai´s brilliant classical work on the genetic dissection of memory in the fruit fly Drosophila, and had met him at international conferences. As for Changeux I knew of  his superb scientific work, which was held in high esteem by his peers and non-peers, his name being mentioned in the same breath as the French Nobel Prize laureates Jacob and Monod. It was a humbling experience to get the invitation from these two admired and respected scientists to take part in the application for this huge EU project.

Q2: Tell us about your work on animal research ethics in the Human Brain Project.

My work involved going through the applications to local ethics committee submitted by HBP Principal Investigators from various EU countries. It was clear at the outset that the ethical applications differed between different European countries. Some applications could be up to 50 pages long, while others could be 1 or 2 pages long. It appeared therefore that some EU countries did set the animal research ethics bar very high.

What was needed was to ensure all the EU countries do follow the ethical guidelines as stipulated in EU Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, such as implementation of the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement).  It is the responsibility of the local ethics committees in the EU countries to see the EU directive is adhered to. We as the Ethics Support are not supposed to be an extra ethical committee – but to check that all is in order and to advise if needed.

A thorny issue has been how to ensure third countries follow the EU regulations. We determined that this should be the responsibility of the PI (principal investigator) in HBP to ensure that the collaborators in third countries follow acceptable ethical standards in their animal research – and  in accordance with the EU regulations. On the whole the PIs have been cooperative in following the ethical rules in animal research.

Q3: You have organised ethics workshops for the HBP Education programme. Based on that experience, what are your suggestions for future Ethics and Society education activities?

The ethics workshops and Schools in the HBP Education Programme have been well received by participants from HBP and outside. It is important to continue with these workshops which provide knowledge of ethical principles involved in basic and clinical research, so that participants become aware of the ethical problems involved in their work. Exposure to such topics as computer ethics and roboethics has been appreciated.

In the earlier workshops and schools there were many applications; but in recent ones there were very few applications. The main reason for this was not lack of interest but the inclusion of Registration fees, which we did not have earlier. This unfortunately was imposed on the Education Programme. I hope a solution will be found to the question of Registration fees in future, as there is a good deal of interest in the Ethics workshops, but most students are not prepared to pay Registration fees.

The Ethics Support should continue to be active in organizing these workshops with the Education Programme. The workshops should continue to encourage interactions between students and lecturers in the workshop. The Team-Based Learning sessions has shown it is profitable to include practical exercises rather than focusing only on lectures. This kind of instruction deserves to be maintained in future workshops, as the students become actively engaged. It may also be worthwhile to collaborate with other organizations in these workshops  such as the International Neuroethics Society (INS) and International Brain Research Organization (IBRO).

Q4: What are your future research plans?

My research has been for at least the last 30 years on the impact of the environment on brain and behavior during adulthood and ageing. The studies were mainly done in rats and mice, in which we established that environmental stimulation causes neuroanatomical, biochemical and behavioural changes in adult and elderly rats. We were the first to show that enriched environment increased levels of the neurotrophins nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the hipppocampus of adult and ageing rats. It is gratifying that the results from this work on rats and mice can be extrapolated to humans.

So my current and future research is on the impact of environmental stimulation (such as physical exercise and cognitive training) on neurotrophin BDNF, proteomics and cognitive function in elderly adult humans. This research project SAGE (Successful AGeing and Enrichment) has been funded by the Kamprad Family Foundation (IKEA) for the last 4 years and has now received new funding. The work has been done in collaboration involving Linnaeus University, Karolinska Institute, Harvard Medical School, Medical University of South Carolina, and now Umeå University.  

For several years I was involved with the activities on promoting neuroscience in Africa, which was supported by IBRO, in which I served as Chair of African Regional Committee for 6 years. When I was invited to join IBROs MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Committee as a co-opted member, it occurred to me that the MENA and African regions could join forces and  work together. Hence my proposal to promote Neuroscience in AFRABIA (encompassing both Africa and the Arab World). Thus my future activity will also be focusing on this challenging and exciting project  “Neuroscience in AFRABIA”. Of course research ethics will also be an important aspect in this project.

Q5: Anything else?

I started at the Karolinska Institute (KI)  in 1987 as a Postdoc, after finishing my interdisciplinary Ph D thesis at Uppsala University and Umeå University. The thesis emanated from 3 Departments: Pharmacology, Psychology and Geriatric Medicine. In 1987 there was no Department of Geriatric Medicine at KI, and Bengt Winblad, a well-known researcher on aging was recruited from Umeå University to be the first Professor of Geriatric Medicine at KI. Some of us (about 8-10 people) who worked with him in Umeå followed him to KI to start the Department of Geriatric Medicine.

The making of the Department of Geriatric Medicine, Karolinska Institute, Huddinge University Hospital, Sweden, 1987. Standing behind (without glasses) Bengt Winblad, the young first Professor of Geriatric Medicine at KI, flanked by even younger pioneers.

I was in charge of experimental animal research holding a research scientist position of  the Swedish Medical Research Council, and becoming Associate Professor, doing research on animal models of ageing and the impact of environmental stimulation. Starting with 8 people, the Department grew, as did my responsibilities which included  checking and signing all animal research ethical applications before they were submitted to the local ethical committee. Neurogeriatrics, as it is now called, became the largest Division in one of the largest Departments at the KI – the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society, which has 500 employees, several hundred affiliated researchers and 1600 full-year students.

Whilst continuing to work at the KI, I was recruited at Linnaeus University in 2006 as a Professor of Psychology, to help in starting the PhD Programme and Clinical Psychology Programme. This was achieved with the help of other colleagues at the Department of Psychology. I have now semi-retired as I maintain a Position as Senior Professor at LNU and as  Associated/Affiliated at KI. This involves lecturing on Brain Plasticity to Clinical Psychology students at both the universities, and maintaining contacts with colleagues working on animal models of Alzheimer disease and lecturing in courses on experimental animal behavior research. The environmental stimulation continues…

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