Science

Iris Sommer shares the secrets of the brain

Searching beneath the skull

The brain is a marvellous organ and neuroscientist Iris Sommer wants to find out everything she can about it. She loves sharing her knowledge with a wide audience and has found creative ways to do so. ‘We all have a brain, but very few people know very much about it.’
By Felien van Kooij
16 December om 10:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 December 2020
om 10:27 uur.
December 16 at 10:27 AM.
Last modified on December 16, 2020
at 10:27 AM.

When she was still in high school, she attended an open day at the biology department. As soon as she saw the pistils and stamen of flowers, Iris Sommer knew: this was not her thing. She was much more interested in the human body. ‘When I learned about the human brain during the open day at the medical faculty, the choice was quickly made. I think the human brain is fascinating.’ 

She’s been a professor of neuroscience and a psychiatrist at the Parkinson’s department at the UMCG, sharing her fascination for the brain with everyone who’s interested.

Sometimes one of the rooms in the neuroscience manor suddenly lights up

A lot about how our brain works remains unclear, which means there’s a lot still to discover. That’s exactly what makes the field so interesting, Sommer says. ‘I like to compare neuroscience to a large manor: the light is on in some rooms, while others are dark. But sometimes, one of the rooms suddenly lights up.’

Every time one that happens, neuroscientists learn more about the brain. ‘We always try and see how we can use this new knowledge to help people with brain disorders.’

Faulty circuitry

The brain will never fail to surprise Sommer. ‘In people who suffer from a brain disorder, there’s something wrong with the circuitry of their brain’, she says. ‘It makes you think about how the brain works under normal circumstances.’ 

Take for instance the Capgras syndrome, a delusional misidentification syndrome, which can occur in people with Parkinson’s. People with Capgras are convinced that their partner has been replaced with a lookalike. They can no longer recognise and trust their partner’s face. Apparently, there’s a circuit in the brain that connects trust to the recognition circuit, but in Capgras, the two are no longer activated together. ‘Whenever we realise something like that, another room in the house lights up.’

Sommer feels it’s important to share neuroscientific knowledge with the public. ‘We all have a brain, but very few people know very much about it.’ It’s not just fun to figure out how that brain works, she says, but informing people about how they can make their valuable brain last is particularly useful. 

Besides, her research is often funded by tax revenue. ‘It’s important to show people where that money is going. I think that’s a part of scientists’ jobs.’ 

Accessible

To achieve her goal, Sommer and other neuroscientists at the UMCG have set up the Marvellous Mind project, which they use to make the most recent insights in neuroscience accessible to the general public. ‘The people of Groningen tend to have no idea about all the things researchers do behind the scenes. We want to bring neuroscience closer to the Groningen public and forge a relationship with the city and the province.’

We want to bring neuroscience closer to the Groningen public

The scientists organise film nights at the Forum and in November, they started a podcast called The Bovenverdieping. Each week, an episode deals with subjects like brain damage, or the vulnerable yet flexible depression brain. 

‘I love teaching students, but they’re only learning the basics, and that can get a little repetitive’, says Sommer. ‘I make the lessons fun for myself and we have some interesting discussions, but it’s not as creative as I’d like.’ Marvellous Mind allows her to get off the beaten track and devise new ways to get people interested in neuroscience. 

Young Academy

Her creative drive was awakened when she was part of the Young Academy. She and a few other members would visit schools to get students interested in science, but she realised that she was kind of uncomfortable around kids. ‘I started writing informative books as an alternative way to share my knowledge.’ She laughs: ‘Don’t worry, I get along fine with my own children.’ 

She prefers to work with older patients. Nevertheless, her work as a psychiatrist can be taxing, says Sommer, since her actions can influence how a patient is doing. ‘When a patient attempts suicide, you can’t just shake that off’, she says. ‘You can’t help but wonder if there was anything you could have done to prevent it.’ 

I want to alleviate more symptoms in ten years’ time

As a psychiatrist, she often has to disappoint people; in some brain disorders, there’s nothing that can be done to lessen the symptoms. ‘All I can do is listen and offer support, but I still don’t have sufficient expertise to offer a solution. That’s where I get my motivation for research: to alleviate more symptoms in ten years’ time.’ 

That is why she enjoys the combination of clinic work and the research group: the research helps her put her other work into perspective.

Developments

Compared to when she started in 2004, doctors are capable of so much more these days. Deep brain stimulation was still in its infancy back then; these days, it’s used regularly. ‘It really helps patients improve. The treatment can undo up to five years of the disease progression. Developments are happening fast, but we still have a long way to go.’

Sommer received a one-million-euro scholarship from the Netherlands Brain Foundation to study the connection between nutrition and brain disorders. She hopes to find out how to optimise the intestinal bacteria in people with for example Parkinson’s and document the effect it has on their social and personal life. 

‘I’m so happy with the grant’, she says. ‘I myself am a collector for the Brain Foundation, so it meant a lot to me.’  

She thinks doing the study in Groningen will be especially great. ‘Scientists here are really interested in collaborating, and I think there’s a little less competition than in the west.’ That openness is part of a particular Groningen mentality, she thinks. ‘I used to work in Amsterdam and Utrecht. Being here is a breath of fresh air.’

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