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2018 Young Investigator Award Winner, Maria Ironside

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Dr Maria Ironside, Young Investigator Award Winner 2018

We are proud to announce that Dr Maria Ironside of Harvard University is the winner of the 2018 BrainBox Initiative Young Investigator Award. Maria’s successful research examines ‘Cognitive and neural mechanisms of action of frontal cortex stimulation and its implications for the treatment of depression and anxiety’.

We recently spoke to Maria to find out more about her research, her Young Investigator Award entry, and herself.

Maria Ironside, Young Investigator Award

Maria Ironside, D.Phil, is a post-doctoral research fellow in affective neuroscience at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ironside completed her doctoral training in 2016 at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, under the supervision of Prof. Catherine Harmer and Dr. Jacinta O’Shea. As a graduate student she used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the effects of frontal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on vigilance to threat in trait anxious females, funded by the Medical Research Council of England. She is currently collaborating with clinical trials of tDCS for major depressive disorder (MDD) in Brazil to help establish cognitive neuropsychological biomarkers of treatment response.

Hi Maria, could you tell us about your Young Investigator Award entry, and what made you choose this area of research?

The overarching goals of my research are to improve our understanding of the mechanisms of action of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) as a treatment for major depressive disorder. I am a cognitive neuroscientist who uses behavioral and neuroimaging measures to investigate the cognitive and neural features of anxiety and depression, and the mechanisms of action of antidepressant treatment. In graduate school at the University of Oxford, I used an experimental medicine model to elucidate acute cognitive and neural mechanisms of frontal cortex tDCS and compare these with acute effects of antidepressant drugs in a psychopharmacology lab setting (under the supervision of Catherine Harmer and Jacinta O’Shea). Collectively, these results propose an emerging neurocognitive model for the mechanisms of action of tDCS (downregulation of amygdalar activation to threat-related cues). Through my ongoing collaborations with a clinical trials group at the University of Sao Paolo, and a recent fellowship award from the Rappaport foundation at McLean Hospital, Massachusetts, we have begun to explore these mechanisms in depressed patients undergoing tDCS treatment.

How did you learn about the BrainBox Initiative Young Investigator Award, and what convinced you to submit your work for consideration?

I attended the Brainbox Initiative as a research challenge participant in 2017 and was greatly impressed with the focus on innovation and support provided for early career researchers. I really wanted to continue my involvement in the initiative and surrounding community and so decided to submit for the young investigator award.

How do you feel to have been chosen as our 2018 Young Investigator Award winner?

I was delighted to be chosen for the award. At this early stage in my career it is so crucial to gain a platform from which to communicate my research, so having the opportunity to present at the meeting was excellent. I had a lot of interesting conversations with fellow researchers following my presentation which is super helpful for future collaborations or even just troubleshooting more practical research issues. It feels like a supportive community is growing around this meeting. In addition, the financial support to attend the meeting was most appreciated, particularly as I was coming from the US.

What areas of brain stimulation research do you find particularly interesting or exciting in terms of the research being carried out at the moment?

I am very treatment focused and I’m cautiously excited about the potential of tDCS as a treatment for depression. However, we really aren’t there yet in terms of clinical evidence. This may be because there are a sub-group of patients who respond to tDCS and we have no way of selecting these people. Crucial to progressing this is larger scale clinical trials of tDCS for the treatment of depression, such as those carried out by Andre Brunoni and his team at the university of Sao Paolo and Colleen Loo and her team at the University of South Wales. The addition of cognitive and neuroimaging measures to these clinical trials, such as that carried out by Camilla Nord at UCL (now Cambridge) is an important step in figuring out potential markers of treatment response.

What advice would you give to other early-career researchers thinking of submitting their work to the BrainBox Initiative, or maybe just for promoting their research more generally?

In terms of the BrainBox Initiative, go for it! It’s a very friendly community and there are multiple ways to get involved. More generally, don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Some of my most useful relationships have developed from a cold email that I sent to someone I had never met before. Smaller, more targeted conferences may be more useful in terms of meeting collaborators, building a community and having a platform where you will get noticed.

And last but not least, what happens outside of the lab? What’re your main interests when you’re not busy with your research?

I love theatre and while I was in grad school I helped my husband and friends establish a theatre company in the UK which now also runs in the US where we currently live. I try to see as many shows as I can and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is my favourite place on earth!

Congratulations again to Maria Ironside on her successful Young Investigator Award submission. For further information on the award, and to register your interest in submitting your own work for the 2019 Young Investigator Award, please visit the BrainBox Initiative website.