Spotlight on Early-Career researchers a Neuronet interview with Ilja Saris

In this Neuronet spotlight on early-career researcher interview, we speak with Ilja Saris who works both as researcher and psychiatrist. She carried out a PhD as part of a subproject in the PRISM consortium that studied differences and commonalities in social functioning in neuropsychiatric disorders – Alzheimer’s disease and Schizophrenia. We asked Ilja about her motivations, research, as well as about challenges & opportunities in her field.

What made you decide to follow a career in science?

Science is a great way to broaden your scope. It is challenging, consists of many different tasks and brings new perspectives. Science, and specifically neuroscience, has grabbed my interest ever since I studied white matter differences. It strikes me every time when I study literature, think about my own research or attend a presentation on someone else’s research, the fascinating, ever changing brain is still so very much undiscovered!

As a psychiatrist I find the combination of science and clinical work ideal. It helps me to see psychiatric disorders with a birds eye view and at the same time, the – sometimes abstract scientific concepts – really come to life with patients in mind.

What excites you most about your work?

The project-based work is something I appreciate within science. The entire process of a research question, thinking how to answer the question, studying literature, researching and writing a paper is very satisfying. Although I do have to admit that I am sometimes sort of done with adjusting a manuscript 🙂

The work I have done within PRISM is really rewarding due to the combination of hands-on clinical research and the more abstract concepts of underlying pathology.

What is the default network mode?

The default mode network (DMN) is the largest resting state network. Even when we are not focused on the external environment and let our minds wander, the brain is continually active. Broadly speaking, it is active when we do not engage in a specific task. It is for example active when we are mind wandering. Typically, during moments of mind wandering, people tend to think about life events in the recent past, present or immediate future and reconstruct scenes based on memories, but quite often also social interactions. It has been suggested that the highly intertwined DMN subsystems allow for integration of one’s experiences, memories or mental state to form and update models of our (social) experiences to prospectively adapt to new social situations. The hypothesis of an active role of the DMN in social interactions is further supported by the anatomical brain areas involved in the DMN.

You recently published a scientific article as part of research, funded through the Innovative Medicines Initiative’s PRISM project.

What were your main findings?

Within the PRISM project differences and commonalities in social functioning in very differing neuropsychiatric disorders – Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Schizophrenia (SZ) – are studied. Our main findings from our recently published paper were the DMN connectional alterations associated with social dysfunction within the entire group of healthy controls, AD and SZ patients with rostromedial prefrontal DMN sub territories. This was true for loneliness (conceptualised with the de Jong-Gierveld loneliness questionnaire), and a behavioural concept of social activities (conceptualised with the social functioning scale) and even more pronounced with the combination of both questionnaires within the diverse diagnostic group.

Findings further hint towards a neurobiological correlate at the basis of social dysfunction that is possibly distinct and partly independent of the current neuropsychiatric nosologies.

What impact do you hope your work will have in the long run?

We hope, I hope, this research can be used as a first step towards more transdiagnostic research in the domain of social functioning. It is clear to me that social dysfunction impacts so many lives of patients with different disorders but also their families and caregivers. More knowledge on the transdiagnostic neurobiological correlates, possibly at the basis of social dysfunction, would hopefully also provide tools towards developing new or alter existing therapies.

What do you see as the key challenges & opportunities for your field?

Currently the field is still stuck to some extent on nosologies. Somehow, we find it hard to accept commonalities between very different disorders in research. Whilst the clinical practice is actually full of combined disorders and transdiagnostic symptoms. I would like to advocate for more unexpected collaborations in different fields of expertise. Let’s combine creative thinkers with fundamental research and clinicians with mathematicians and see where it takes us!

Selected papers

M. J. Saris, M. Aghajani, L. M. Reus, P. Visser, Y. Pijnenburg, N. J. A. van der Wee, A. C. Bilderbeck, A. Raslescu, A. Malik, M. Mennes, S. Koops, C. Arrango, J. L. Ayuso-Mateos, G. R. Dawson, H. Marston, M. J. Kas, B. W. J. H. Penninx & for the PRISM consortium (2021) Social Dysfunction is Transdiagnostically Associated with Default Mode Network Dysconnectivity in Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s Disease, The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, online first

M. J. Saris, M. Aghajani, N. Jongs, L. M. Reus, N. J. A. van der Wee, A. C. Bilderbeck, I. Winter van Rossum, C. Arrango, A. de la Torre-Loque, A. Malik, A. Raslescu, G. R. Dawson, J. L. Ayuso-Mateos, M. J. Kas, B. W. J. H. Penninx & for the PRISM consortium. Cross-Disorder and Disorder-Specific Deficits in Social Functioning Among Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s Disease Patients. Submitted for publication.

de la Torre-Luque, A. Viera-Campos, A. C. Bilderbeck, M. T. Carreras, J. Vivancos, C. M. Diaz-Caneja, M. Aghajani, I. M. J. Saris, A. Raslescu, A. Malik, J. Clark, B. W. J. H. Penninx, N. J. A. van der Wee, I. Winter-van Rossum, B. Sommer, H. Marston, G. R. Dawson, M. J. Kas, J. L. Ayuso-Mateos, C. Arango. (in preprint 2021) Relationships between social withdrawal and facial emotion recognition in neuropsychiatric disorders.

Jongs, R. Jagesar, B. W. J. H. Penninx, L. M. Reus, I. M. J. Saris, M. Mennes, C. Arango, N. J. A. van der Wee, I. Winter-van Rossum, A. C. Bilderbeck, P. l’Hostis, C. F. Beckmann, G. R. Dawson, E. M. Pich, B. Sommer, H. Marston, J. A. Vorstman, M. J. C. Eijkemans, M. J. Kas. Towards unbiased and data-driven readouts of daily social functioning derived from longitudinal smartphone data and deep learning. Submitted for publication

Jongs, B. W. J. H. Penninx, C. Arango J. L. Ayuso-Mateos, N. J. A. van der Wee, I. Winter-van Rossum, I., I. M. J. Saris, A. van Echteld, S. Koops, A. C. Bilderbeck, A. Raslescu, G. R. Dawson, B. Sommer, G. Marston, J. A. Vorstman, M. C. J. Eijkemans, M. J. Kas, (accepted 2020). Effect of disease related biases on the subjective assessment of social functioning in Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia patients. Journal of Psychiatric Research, online first.

Porcelli, N.J.A. Van Der Wee, S. van der Werff, M. Aghajani, J.C. Glennon, S. van Heukelum, F. Mogavero, A. Lobo, F. J. Olivera, E. Lobo, M. Posadas, J. Dukart, R. Kozak, E. Arce, A. Ikram, J. Vorstman, A. C. Bilderbeck, I. M. J. Saris, M. J. Kas, (2019). Social brain, social dysfunction and social withdrawal. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 97, 10–33.

J. A. van der Wee, A. C. Bilderbeck, M. Cabello, J. L. Ayuso-Mateos, I. M. J. Saris, E. J. Giltay, B. W. J. H. Penninx, C. Arango, A. Post, S. Porcelli (2019). Working definitions, subjective and objective assessments and experimental paradigms in a study exploring social withdrawal in schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 97. 38-46.