Dr. Julio Martinez-Trujillo joined the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology as an Associate Professor in December, and is setting up his lab at Robarts. His research aims to understand the physiology of cognition and behaviour, focusing on how the brain transforms visual signals into coordinated motor behaviour and how this process is influenced by attention. We spoke to him about his current projects and what he's looking forward to as a faculty member and scientist.
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
I have always had an incredible appetite for knowledge. It is part of my personality to want to find out how things work and to answer fundamental questions about human nature.
I became interested in the brain after going to medical school and becoming a clinical neurophysiologist. I used to read recordings of the electrical activity (electroencephalograms) in the brains of children with ADHD, Autism, and Epilepsy. I also used to treat them with the medications I had available. It was very frustrating for me how little I could do for these children, and how little we knew about what was happening to them.
I realized that the fundamental problem is that we simply do not know enough about how the brain works, and that this is essential for finding efficient methods to treat brain disease. So I stopped my clinical practice and went to a research lab in Tuebingen, Germany, to investigate how the activity of single neurons produces complex behavior.
After 20 years of initiating that journey I am now here, at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Robarts. I have an arsenal of knowledge and techniques that I will use to my best ability to answer fundamental questions in basic and clinical sciences. If I make a fundamental contribution to science, I may be able to help not only a handful of patients, as I was doing in my practice, but help many millions of them and their families.
For me, being a scientist is the best job on earth.
What are your current research interests?
My long-term goal is to understand how the brain implements intelligent behaviour, or what we call cognition. A sophisticated and complex intelligence is what makes humans unique, and I think that it has a lot to do with the expansion of the lateral prefrontal cortex that primates underwent through evolution.
I want to understand how the expansion of this part of the brain makes us unique, but also why it seems to make us more vulnerable to what we call mental disease, which is the deviation from normal behaviour. I want to make a contribution in my lifetime to our understanding of cognition and of disorders that affect some of its most relevant aspects such as attention and working memory. This will shed light into the origin of complex mental diseases, such as Autism, ADHD, and Schizophrenia.
What do you hope your research will mean for people's health in the future?
We lack basic knowledge of how the brain works. This is the main reason why we cannot find cures for many of the neurological and psychiatric disorders that are so common in human populations. Better knowledge of brain mechanisms means better interventions to cure disease. Currently, we are practically shooting magic bullets at most of the mental disorders we know, hoping that some will hit some unidentified or suspected target mechanism and alleviate some disease symptoms in a certain proportion of patients. My hope is to make a contribution to our knowledge of the mechanisms underlying cognition and how are they disrupted during disease. This will set the basis for targeted interventions that will improve the life of many patients.
What are you most looking forward to as you begin at Robarts?
I am looking forward to joining a fantastic team and an extraordinary group of people that are dedicating their lives to science. This is a place where I think I can achieve the very best of my research career. You can feel the collaborative environment at Robarts. This is exactly what we need in modern neuroscience – a multidisciplinary force that tackles a problem from multiple angles and at different levels of complexity, and puts everything together after.
When you aren't working what might we find you doing?
These days, most likely playing with my little girls and doing puzzles. If I have some time left, which is unlikely, you may find me fencing or skiing. I am an active person, I think best after a good work out, when I am taking a shower.
If you could have any super power, what would it be?
I am not sure whether this is a superpower, but I would like to have the ability to fully manipulate and control DNA sequences in living organisms. Can you imagine how many diseases I could cure if I could do that?
Learn more about Dr. Martinez-Trujillo's most recent work. Click here to watch the video.