Five Questions With:
Victoria Heimer-McGinn

Updated 12:55 p.m.

Victoria Heimer-McGinn is the chair and one of the founders of Brain Week RI, a series of panels, brain science fairs and forums exploring brain science, running from March 9-17.

Brain Week focuses on the wealth of neuroscience in Rhode Island and builds off Brain Awareness Week’s global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research.

Heimer-McGinn is a neuroscientist at Roger Williams University with a general interest in learning/memory and neuropsychiatric disease. She holds a doctorate in molecular neuroscience from University College Cork in Ireland and postdoctoral training in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience from Brown University and Providence College.

Heimer-McGinn has worked on topics including spatial memory, spatial context, attention, aging, working memory, and transgenic technologies. In addition to her research, she is passionate about making neuroscience research accessible to non-scientists.

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PBN: Why did you co-found Brain Week? How has this annual focus on brain science and research improved the lives of Rhode Islanders?

HEIMER-MCGINN: The motivation to co-found Brain Week Rhode Island came from a genuine love and appreciation for brain research. As scientists, we often get so entrenched in our own worlds of highly specialized work that we forget to communicate our knowledge to the rest of the world. There are so many myths and misconceptions out there and it’s our responsibility to address those “head-on,” no pun intended.

Considering that brain-related illnesses collectively rank among the highest in terms of personal burden and economic cost to society, it is more important than ever to educate ourselves on brain health and to understand the value of taxpayer-funded brain research.

And we can’t forget how cool the brain is! There is a growing curiosity in R.I. about the mysteries of the brain, [such as] Why do we dream? Why does a smell bring me back to my childhood? And Brain Week has certainly catered to that curiosity.

PBN: Common wisdom often separates mental and physical well-being and health. How well does that philosophy stand up in light of modern brain science?

HEIMER-MCGINN: It doesn’t! The brain is an organ like any other, so, in fact, the inner workings of the brain are just as “physical” as any of the outward sensations we experience. The key is recognizing that the mechanisms that underlie movement and sensation – touch, pain, sight, taste, smell, hearing – are the very same as those that underlie emotion, perception, thought, decision-making, memory, intelligence, and so many others. We shouldn’t think that our so-called “mind” is susceptible to psychological afflictions, which may or may not alter physical health.

Rather, we should understand that the brain is an organ which is susceptible to physical afflictions, including the ones we label as psychological, and that these physical alterations in our brain result in altered cognition, perception, thought, etc.

Let’s take stress, for example. Stress promotes the release of cortisol in the body, a substance [that] enhances the “flight or flight” response. Cortisol, although beneficial in the short term, can accumulate and initiate a “self-destruct” pathway that results in neuronal death.

Interestingly, the mechanism is quite similar to that of normal aging. When you frame it this way, it becomes clear that “mental” well-being is much more “physical” than we think.

PBN: Brain week discusses suicide and opioid addiction – what about these brain-related problems do people most often misconstrue?

HEIMER-MCGINN: Great question, there is so much to be said about this. In terms of addiction in general, society still views the symptoms of this disorder, i.e. the inability to “shake off” harmful habits, as moral failings and/or character flaws. But in fact, addiction is a physical disorder that arises from faulty reward pathways in the brain. This is why some people can consume addictive substances without becoming addicted, while others do not have this luxury. It’s important to make this distinction so that we can destigmatize the disease and move forward with treating “addicts” as patients rather than criminals or misfits.

In terms of suicide, there are many common myths, including the idea that suicide only affects people with a mental health condition. In fact, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] estimates that roughly half of all lives lost to suicide occur in the absence of a diagnosed condition.

Another problem with suicide are the labels that we place on people. The act of suicide is often in response to a deep sense of pain or loss, emotions which can be transient in a person’s life. In many cases, suicidal ideations can dissipate along with the painful emotions that brought them on. Labeling a person as “suicidal” indefinitely is just as nonsensical as labeling someone “flu-y” after they’ve recovered from the flu.

Both suicide and addiction are riddled with stigmatizing myths that we will address at our two respective panels.

PBN: What is the most exciting brain science story in the Ocean State today?

HEIMER-MCGINN: There is so much exciting and cutting-edge brain science taking place right in our state! From BrainGate, world leaders in brain-computer interfaces, to endowments for brain research at Brown University and [the University of Rhode Island] to up-and-coming small pharmaceuticals [and] public policies that support and promote research, there is certainly a lot going on.

We are also leading on the health front. For instance, did you know that R.I. is a national leader in the opiate crisis response? R.I. is one of only three states that has implemented all of the key actions identified by the National Safety Council for ending the opioid crisis.

Taken together, these advances in basic, clinical, and health science underscore the fact that neuroscience is one of the growing economic sectors in Rhode Island.

Brain Week Rhode Island aims to foster that growth by promoting collaboration between institutions and organizations, and by inspiring a future generation of scientists to get involved in brain-related careers.

PBN: There’s a lot of Brain Week to take in. What shouldn’t we miss if we can help it?

HEIMER-MCGINN: Tough question! My personal favorite is StoryCollider because it brings to the stage amazing personal stories related to the brain. As a scientist, it’s so refreshing to see the human side of the research we do; it really puts our work into broader perspective. The stories are great because the producers work with the speakers to explore the full range of emotions, from funny to inspirational and everything in between.

On the more “sciency” side, I love the brain fairs at URI and at Brown. Each table has fun games intended to teach you about the principles behind ongoing research in our state. It’s great for adults of all ages, and kids love it too. For teenagers/young adults, it can also double as a career fair of sorts; the graduate students who manage the tables are a great resource for those hoping to explore the field.

Finally, on the policy side we have an advocacy open forum with guest appearances by high-level government officials. They will discuss the intersection of public policy with mental health and research.

Visit Brain Week RI’s website for a complete list of events.

Rob Borkowski is a PBN contributing writer.