Symprove spotlight series
To coincide with International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11th February 2022), we were delighted to sit down with Dr Lynne Anne Barker, BSc (Hons), PhD, PGCert, Associate Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience and Neurocognitive Team Lead for the Centre for Behavioural Science and Applied Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University. Dr Barker is a pioneer in the field of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Her work aims to understand how trauma to the brain leads to changes in behaviour and cognitive ability in those affected. She has also worked to develop new experimental methods for assessing cognitive ability, including computerised simulations that incorporate real-world tasks such as cooking, with the aim of increasing the speed and efficiency of diagnoses of these life-changing injuries.
Welcome Lynne and thanks for joining us! Please could you tell us a bit more about yourself?
My name is Dr Lynne Barker and I’m an Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience. I’m based in the Psychology, Sociology, and Politics department at Sheffield Hallam University, which is also a research centre for behavioural science and applied psychology.
I began working at Sheffield Hallam University in 2006 and immediately set about creating neuroscience teaching and research provision. I created the Brain, Behaviour and Cognition Research group that has since expanded into the Cognition and Neuroscience Research Interest Group. I was promoted to Associate Professor of Neuroscience in 2015. I am also a Special Edition editor of Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience and OBM Neurobiology.
My methodological expertise centres on retinal imaging, eye-tracking, cognitive and neuropsychological assessment, immersive technological developments for health care evaluation, and pioneering new approaches investigating the gut microbiome in neuropathology and health. My areas of interest are brain injury, brain trauma, stroke, concussion, dementia, nerve pathology and Parkinson’s disease.
What led you to study psychology and subsequently pursue a career in neuroscience?
My brother was involved in an accident as a teenager and was in a coma for a while. The whole process of experiencing that with him made me want to study the brain, so I did a psychology degree. However, I realised that psychology doesn’t really involve studying the brain (although there were some elements of that), so my Ph.D. and subsequent qualifications focused on neuroscience.
Could you give us a quick overview of what cognitive neuroscience is?
Cognitive neuroscience is about matching the functions of the brain to neural pathways and regions. It’s understanding how the brain underpins functions such as memory, attention, processing speed, visual memory, and vision, and what goes wrong in neuropathology to derail some of these functions and the mechanisms that underpin that.
What are the known mechanisms by which the gut microbiome impacts on the brain’s activity?
We know there is a mechanism called the gut-brain axis and it’s the way the brain communicates with the gut; it’s a reciprocal, two–way channel. It’s not about the brain sending commands to the gut and the gut silently obeying, but rather the constant stream of communication between the gut and the brain. We’re just beginning to realise that the bacteria that constitutes the microbiome can also use this mechanism to communicate with the brain and can potentially move via the vagus nerve from the gut to the brain. This is a different way of looking at the gut–brain axis because we’re not just talking about stomach signals from the gut and neural signals from the brain but signals from the actual microbes in our gut to our brain.
Your research focus has shifted to the gut microbiome and its role in neurological health. Can you tell us what the motivation was to consider the gut microbiome in your research?
It came from writing my new book. I’ve always been interested in Parkinson’s disease prior to my PhD, and whilst traditional medications can support or stabilise the condition, we still don’t have a cure nor an explanation for the loss of non-motor functions associated with Parkinson’s disease. I am passionate about advancing research further in this area. Therefore, as part of writing my book, I came across microbiome research and began thinking about that in relation to Parkinson’s disease.
I get a huge amount of satisfaction supporting patients with neurological conditions. Our research findings are forming the foundations of evidence-based interventions to help these patients to manage their conditions. They are extremely grateful that we are advancing research further in this field.
Is there research to show that it’s possible to achieve good gut health through targeted dietary approaches?
The interest in the gut, and most of the research being done, is due to gut conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and celiac disease. There is a lot of evidence to show you can improve health and gut conditions using prebiotics and probiotics. That has been accepted as a dietary management tool for quite some time in gut-based conditions however now we’re looking at other conditions as well.
Which effects of probiotics are you investigating in Parkinson’s disease management?
One of the studies that we’ve just conducted was an investigation into whether there would be a change to the microbiome in people with Parkinson’s disease who are taking a probiotic, and whether that would be reflected in the behavioural change compared to controls.
Could you give us your top three tips to good gut health?
My three tips would be:
- To pay attention to your gut. It can be a very early indicator if something is going awry, for example if your stress levels are too high
- Take a probiotic every morning
- Try to eat a healthy balanced diet
Why are you so passionate about educating others and what practical learnings can us healthcare professionals take away from your research and from your upcoming book?
Firstly, education and the quest for knowledge is a fundamental human need, not just in terms of your career but in terms of our nature too. I think it’s important to learn more about the brain; I have always felt this area tends to be neglected. My new book is going to be an entirely new way of looking at brain functions and systems and I’m hoping it will be a beneficial education tool for everyone.
We shouldn’t assume that a brain condition begins in the brain – it can begin elsewhere in the body. Similarly, gut problems can be an early indicator of other things developing elsewhere in the body, for example diabetes. We really need to start looking more at what people are eating, what their digestion is like, whether they’re deficient in nutrients, whether their eating patterns are unhealthy and focusing more on what they’re ingesting.
February 11th is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which is recognizing the role of women and girls as they play agents for change. Can you tell us about some women in science who have inspired you?
This is a difficult question because there are so many women that I’ve worked with who have all given me something; nobody does anything by themselves and so many people have contributed to my career, I don’t want to miss anyone out.
Professor Jackie Andrade, my previous supervisor and teacher, was valuable to my intellectual and overall academic development. The colleagues who I’m working with now (including Caroline Dalton, Sarah Boddy, Anouska Carter and Sammie Gill) inspire me too. When we’re together we have such a dynamic team; the way that we work together to achieve things and make progress is amazing.
What is it like to be a prominent woman in science and have there been any challenges that you’ve faced because of being a woman in science?
There are constant challenges as it is not a level playing field and there is a gender bias; there is still a patriarchal thread that runs through the scientific community. You will find that most directors of research centres are male and most panels on research boards are male. So, in that respect it is still wholly male dominated, and we need to do a lot more work to achieve an even gender split.
What advice would you give to women who are wanting to establish a career in science?
Absolutely, do it! Now is a better time than ever before, and we mustn’t forget that. If you’ve got ideas, seek counsel, get advice, talk to as many people as you can from different disciplines, and then pursue your own goals. I think the most important thing is to believe in your own ideas and to have an effective and supportive team around you (whether that be male or female). Once you’ve got that, you can then effectively pursue your own goals.
In terms of your career, what are you most looking forward to over the next year?
Finishing the book is number one. That’ll be a massive milestone achieved and I’ll feel liberated. Moving forward we have lots of upcoming projects, one of which is using probiotics in people with various motor disorders and in patients with long Covid. So, I’m looking forward to seeing what the data shows us and where we get with those studies.
Keep on eye on Lynne Barker’s book on the brain which will be published by Palgrave MacMillan UK.