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Efficiency in the study of neurological illnesses

Schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease are research targets

In 1996, when he returned from Germany where he had been lecturing and directing the neurobiology sector of Heidelberg University, Wagner Farid Gattaz received from the Psychiatry Institute of USP an area of some 300 m2 to begin his research. “The area had been an old mattress store”, he relates. On his first working day in that improvised laboratory, Dr. Gattaz switched on the air conditioning and as consequence, there was a power failure in the building’s electrical system. “A patient at the HC who was being operated on in neurosurgery wing had to be transferred in a hurry”, he recalls. Built in 1952, the building practically maintained its original electrical circuitry in spite of the growth in the demand for energy by the delicate and numerous pieces of research apparatus introduced over last fifty years.

The neurosciences laboratory was one of the many of the Medical School of USP to receive resources from the Infrastructure Program. Firstly a new air conditioning system was installed, but also equipment for neurochemical analysis was purchased, for molecular and genetic biology, as well as a digital electroencephalogram of high resolution. After the laboratory had begun to offer better working conditions, three other scientists joined Gattaz. They were Orestes Forlenza, Luís Basile and Homero Vallada, and the four of them then presented to FAPESP a thematic research program on the metabolism of phospholipids in schizophrenia and in Alzheimer’s disease. With funds from a technical reserve, they managed to expand the physical area of the neurosciences laboratory.

A neurochemical sector was established, where they produce doses of neurotransmitters which that can be used biological markers of blood and cerebral tissue. These can assist in understanding the cause of the neurological illness and in this way can detect and diagnose the illness before it shows itself more clearly. “This type of research is essential so that we can invest in prevention”, explains Gattaz. It also opens the door for the study of genetics, creating areas of related research, such as isolated neuron study with the use of the images of a spectrofluorimeter; the cultivation of neurons; and of DNA, using four machines for the separation of the blood samples and the purification of enzymes and protein concentrates which will help in the study of the metabolism of the phospholipids of the nerve cell membranes.

Around 22 people, among them researchers, post-doctorates, post-graduates, and science undergraduates have been working in the neurosciences laboratory since its opening in 1999. The results of their work have been presented in Berlin, at the World Congress of Biological Psychiatry in June, and in congresses in Brazil. In one of the papers, Gattaz and his team mapped the metabolism of phospholipids in different areas of the brain of schizophrenic patients and concluded that the main alterations occur in the frontal lobe. Beginning with these preliminary results, Gattaz also concluded, through another piece of research, that there is a reduction of the metabolism of the phospholipids in the membrane of the neurons, which he supposes is related to the formation of plaques of amyloid. “These are neuropathological discoveries important in Alzheimer’s disease”, he says.

Dream laboratory
Professor Valentim Gentil also opened up new research fronts at the Psychiatric Institute. In an area ceded by the school, totally restored and equipped, he installed two new laboratories, one of psychobiology and another of electrocardiogram, and he should shortly conclude his dream laboratory. “We have around ten professors involved in this theme,” says Gentil.