Highlighted Researcher in TMU Neuroscience: Dr. Niall Duncan, Cognitive Neuroscientist

Dr. Niall Duncan


After earning a BSc with Honors in pharmacology and an MLitt in philosophy of the mind at the University of Glasgow, Dr. Duncan followed his PhD advisor from Germany to Ottawa’s Carlton University, where he completed his Doctorate in biology, specializing in neuroscience. With a background in both neuroscience and philosophy, Dr. Duncan was recruited to TMU’s Brain and Consciousness Research Center. He has been at TMU for the past three years. 

Find more about his research: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Niall_Duncan

Can you please briefly describe neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience for us?

It’s constantly changing, especially as it becomes a fashionable term. I would say it’s the study of brain trying to answer the questions of why do I see anything, why do I feel anything, why do I want anything. For example, a psychologist might ask why this person is happy, but they’re not necessarily asking what’s happening in their brain to make them happy. The neuroscientists are answering that question by approaching it from the biological side. That’s the ambition anyways. And that deals with single cells, or even gene expression, all the way up to what I’m doing with brain imaging in humans and so on, and finally looking at the behavior that arises.

At every point on that continuum from gene expression to behavior there are always collaborations. There are no fixed boundaries to what neuroscience is. There are these huge questions, and this person that does computer science has a really good perspective, or this physicist is doing something that’s applicable, or this mathematician or economist, all sorts of people. It’s becoming more and more multidisciplinary and an umbrella term.

I do brain imaging, neuroimaging if you want… which is the field that is looking at trying to measure brain function and structure in living animals. And so it’s a kind of continuation of the old work that people used to only be able to do with animals, to extend that biology research into living humans by using the technology that is now available.

Why is neuroscience interesting to you? How did you first get interested in neuroscience?

From the beginning it was always the brain stuff that was the most interesting. We’ve got this lump of meat in our head, and we all see stuff, we feel stuff, we’re sad, we’re happy. How does that happen? That’s such a cool question. In pharmacology we dealt with neurotransmission a lot, because that’s what the drugs are acting on. The work I do now continues from that, in that I look at neurotransmitters in the human brain and their influence on brain activity and on people’s experience. In philosophy I focused on the philosophy of mind. One of the major questions is ‘why are we conscious?’ Between the biology and the philosophy, it was an obvious path towards where I am.

What kinds of research are you doing at TMU now? What are some applications of your work?

My background was doing a lot of psychiatric disease related neuroscience, and along with Dr Tzu-Yu Hsu I’m currently running a big project with depression patients. We’re trying to use a range of neuroimaging techniques to get a picture of what’s going on in their brains from different perspectives, and putting that together. A key focus is on rumination – people with depression get trapped in negative thoughts about themselves. We’re trying to look at the neural changes that might be producing those negative thoughts and how we might go about stopping them. We’re doing some fMRI, some EEG, we’re even taking blood samples and collaborating with Dr Thierry Burnouf [College of Biomedical Engineering] who’s going to look at inflammatory markers. This primary research is essential to develop treatments that work.

There’s currently a lot of research going on identifying the fact that depression is not one homogenous disease, it’s more like a whole set of different diseases that produce symptoms that look similar. So of course if you give a drug that treats one of those subtypes it’s not going to treat the other ones. We need to work out what the subtypes are, how to identify them, and how to treat those ones specifically. That’s a little bit down the line, but we’re getting there, and some of the work that we’re doing will play a part.

We try to approach some of these diseases from the point of view of consciousness. You need to think in theoretical terms, which is why having philosophers around is useful. Neuroscientists are thinking in quite a big picture, about how does this organ work, but then there’s an even bigger picture of what does that mean and why has it come to work that way. They seem like abstract questions but I would argue that they’re fundamental. If you don’t understand what your brain is for, then it’s really hard to work out what’s gone wrong with it.

Who else are you working with?

[Our center] is definitely interdisciplinary. We have engineers, Tim’s a philosopher, we’ve got some psychologists, and Jihwan (Dr. Jihwan Myung) who recently joined the faculty does some really interesting stuff with mice and circadian rhythms. He’s currently in his office building circuit boards and filling the place with glue. He’s just getting started [researching] the application of these longer term rhythms. A lot of my analysis is based on brain activity rhythms in the short term, and he’s extending that out. We’re trying to put together some projects that will let us go from the single cells in the mice up to looking at the whole human brain, and how it’s being influenced by these rhythms.

What other kinds of neuroscience research is happening at TMU that’s interesting to you?

We’re running a really important project with disorders of consciousness patients. Tim (Dr. Timothy Joseph Lane) is leading that. We’re taking patients with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome and minimally conscious states and firstly seeing if we can give an intervention to improve their condition, but then also doing a lot of brain imaging to try to work out what’s gone wrong – we know what’s gone wrong, they’ve been hit by a car – but which specific changes mean they are no longer conscious of the world. That’s really important research from the point of view of the basic question of where’s this consciousness coming from. That’s a group of patients that if we can find a way of intervening, that’s such a huge difference to their life and almost more importantly to their family’s life.

How do you like working and researching at TMU?

It’s been a good place for me to work. I work with really great people who are doing some cool stuff, and in our center we are trying to do things a bit differently, break the mold a little bit to produce an atmosphere and ethos that leads to good research, and interesting research. That’s our plan.

There’s good infrastructure here. All the hospitals have got MRI scanners that are used day to day for clinical work and are also made available to us to do science. And they have invested in some animal imaging infrastructure also. At our institute we have some really good equipment available in terms of EEG measurements which are an important part of neuroscience, and we also have brain stimulation equipment like TMS and tDCS (transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation) which my colleagues use to stimulate different parts of the brain.

Are you working to bring in new students?

Yeah, we’re always on the lookout. We have our master’s program running and we should be getting a PhD program next year. That will be a really important step because it’s the PhD students that really drive research, if you let them. We get some really great students from all over the planet and I’ve been really impressed with the ones we’ve got so far. Our program seems to attract students that are thinking a bit differently, which is key to doing good science.

What are you looking for in prospective students?

There are two lines to how we see the purpose of our unit. One is to take people who are in different fields and who are interested in doing research and giving them the tools to do that. We’ve got people across the faculty who have expertise we think can help guide people across a wide variety of research interests. Part of that is taking in medical students or qualified doctors who want to learn more about how to do research.

On the other hand, we’re all scientists and we want students who have that curiosity about the brain, about consciousness, about mental illness. We can take that curiosity and use it to make some interesting discoveries.

For interviews or a copy of the paper, contact Office of Global Engagement via global.initiatives@tmu.edu.tw.