Dr Joaquim Alves da Silva, 32, has interrupted his clinical work to enroll in a PhD research project in neuroscience. However, he still teaches Psychiatry at Faculdade de Ciências Médicas in Universidade Nova de Lisboa. He kindly accepted our invitation to talk to you in our very first event and to give us this exclusive interview for our website.
What is the main goal of psychiatry?
In a simple sentence, the main goal of psychiatry is to understand how psychiatric disorders arise, how we can treat or prevent them and, with this knowledge, help patients and their families. This implies a very broad approach using a biological, psychological and social understanding of mental illness.
How do you think basic/untargeted research of brain function will help doctors, and particularly psychiatrists?
In my opinion, one of the main barriers to a better understanding of how psychiatric illnesses arise is the lack of basic knowledge of how the brain works. So by unveiling the nuts and bolts of the biology of behavior, basic neuroscience is already supplying psychiatrists with a more informed way to think about how the brain breaks down.
What are the main differences you feel between medical and researcher life?
It may still be too early to say…I am afraid that the novelty effect will bias my answer.
How do you think we can help bridge basic research in neuroscience with psychiatry/psychology?
Getting more clinicians involved is one step. Another one is to be very realistic in the claims we make. In the last few years, we have witnessed some unrealistic promises of curing neuropsychiatric disorders based on preliminary basic research findings. The failure to deliver such cures has made the public in general more skeptical, and scientists more suspicious about translational research. So, counter-intuitively, by advancing more slowly, building a strong scientific basis may be the answer that will eventually lead to better treatments.
Why did you decide to do a PhD in basic neuroscience research?
During my residency in psychiatry, the lack of knowledge regarding the biologic underpinnings of the diseases I was treating gave rise to a subtle feeling of uneasiness. It grew larger and larger and, at some point, I figured out that I could no longer just do clinical work and needed to contribute to a better understanding of the mechanisms behind these diseases. I could have decided for a clinical PhD, but in coherence with what I expressed before, I think that what we really need is more basic understanding of the biological processes regulating behavior. Nevertheless I do think that my PhD project is very close to clinical issues.
Can you explain your PhD research project in a couple of sentences?
I can try! In a nutshell, my project is trying to answer the following question: are some of the depressive symptoms associated with chronic stress the result of what the brain ‘reads’ from the body? And for that, I am looking into the role of the vagus nerve during chronic stress in mice.
Bruno Afonso is a former PhD student from the Gulbenkian Institute.