Recognized in 2013 as one of Norway’s 10 brightest minds is the neuroscientist and human rights defender Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam. Fleeing Iran in 1985, at the age of 14, with his family, the experience of coming to Norway as a refugee has shaped a great deal of Amiry-Moghaddam’s work. In addition to co-founding the international nonprofit watchdog Iran Human Rights, acting as their spokesperson, he works at the University of Oslo, where he is a professor in medicine and head of the Laboratory of Molecular Neuroscience.
In 2004, he was honored with the King’s Medal of Merit — a Norwegian award rewarding meritorious achievements in various fields — for the best medical doctorate at the University of Oslo. He was awarded in 2007 with Amnesty International’s Human Rights Award for his work with the nongovernmental organization Iran Human Rights. One year later, he was distinguished with the Anders Jahre’s Awards medicine prize for young scientists.
Brain World recently had the opportunity to speak with Amiry-Moghaddam regarding his extensive knowledge of the brain and the considerable advances made in brain medicine over the years, as well as his engagement in human rights activism.
Brain World: How did you become interested in neuroscience?
Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam: Well, I started doing research when I was a second-year medical student. I was studying the kidneys, the same year that the aquaporin water channels were discovered by Peter Agre, who later won the Nobel Prize for his discovery. So from working on the kidneys, I became interested in the properties of “aquaporins.” The department had its main focus on the brain — in 1994, when aquaporins in the brain were discovered, I switched over to neuroscience. But I’ve mainly been drawn to brain science because there is so much we don’t know.
BW: What are aquaporins?
MAM: So these are membrane proteins that mediate the movement of water. Before, let’s say if you look at the physiology books that were written even in the ’90s, it was believed that water just crawled passively through all of the cell membranes and entered the cells. Discovery of aquaporins shows that in the cells where rapid water movement is needed, these cells are equipped with special channels that are permeable to water.
This was what you call a game changer. It gave hope for many diseases brain edema, where there is too much water in the brain; and after a stroke, normally the main killer is that the brain swells up. Other body parts swell up after an injury, but the brain is caged up in a rigid skull, so there is no space for swelling and it basically damages the brain tissue with this increased pressure.
Before this discovery, we thought that there was nothing we could do to stop it. There was no focus on stopping water from entering the brain. Now we know if you manage to block these aquaporins at an early stage, we can stop the damage. In the last two decades, many diseases have been shown to be related to these water channels in not just the brain but all over the body.
BW: What are some things we don’t know yet that you would like to know about the brain?
MAM: Brain disorders, so many of them, have been around for decades, but we still don’t have pre-emptive treatment. When we look at the population, you see that with an aging population, the prevalence of what we call neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, are increasing and we still don’t have an efficient treatment or a pre-emptive treatment.
So there is a lot we don’t know about the brain and that’s what makes neuroscience so important in my view. The brain is not as available as other parts of the body to do research on. Many aspects on how the brain functions and what exactly these diseases do are still a mystery to. With illnesses like brain edema, the basis for treatment has mostly been the same since 1917.
There are many different cell types in the brain, but most of the focus has been on neurons, which of course are the principal cells, but my focus of research has been on glial cells, like astrocytes, but there are different types that go by all different names. These are the most abundant cells in the brain and are only now receiving more attention. I think one of the reasons you haven’t found a cure to many brain disorders could be that we have been neglecting the other cells in the brain.
BW: It would seem that one of the recurring problems in brain research is not having a very good model — that researchers are always trying to perfect one.
MAM: Exactly, and you know, needing one that takes into consideration all the components not only one cell type, because they are all interdependent.
BW: What drove you to become politically active?
MAM: I think it has partly to do with my background. I was born in Iran, although I left Iran in the mid-1980s. I left when I was 11 and came to Norway when I was 14. My experience at that time was important because I went to primary school in second grade, when we had the Islamic Revolution, and I remember very well how things changed.
Very quickly we saw that those who took power intimidated people who spoke out, who thought differently. They started forcing their own views on people. In our class, they imposed compulsory prayer. People would visit the schools, asking children about political views so they could see what was going on at home. It was a transition from being ordinary children wanting to play to being aware of what you can say and what you can’t say in a public space.
My cousin was 18 and he was executed because he supported an opposition group. In 1981, we were hearing terrible news about mass public execution. It was very common. That made an impact.
In addition to this indoctrination that was going on at schools, my sister was done with secondary school and wanted to study at university. She was expelled from university because they didn’t consider her a person who was loyal to the system. So we left Iran as political refugees to Pakistan, and from there the U.N. sent us to Norway.
With that background, I have always been interested in political events and I always wanted to do something to contribute, but it wasn’t until 15 years ago that I realized I don’t need to belong to a political party or organization to do something. I can basically start my own. Today, ordinary people in my view, have much more power than we had before.