I am a Marie Curie Fellow and Group Leader at iMM Lisboa (after 12 years in King’s College London, KCL, UK) where I have set up an human systems-level neuroscience research group. I am also a visiting lecturer at KCL and at the Portuguese research institutions: ISCTE  and FMUL. In 2017, I won a Marie Curie Actions 3rd Prize as the most promising scientist in ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship’.

I became a biologist in the University of Lisbon in 2002, but always felt divided between the cell and the psyche. Thus I moved to the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, of King’s College London, as a Leonardo da Vinci fellow, where I started putting my hands, literally, on the genetics of mental illness. Sponsored by the FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, Portugal), I moved closer to the brain and completed therein a PhD in neuroimaging genetics in 2008. I then coordinated a joint-venture between KCL and a pharmacogenetics company. Later, I got post-doc fellowship from the NIHR (National Institute for Health Research, UK) to work on a multimodal biomarker of psychosis, and became a Lecturer at KCL, teaching harmless statistics in an MSc programme. I found I love to work with students. After 12 years of UK, I came back to the University of Lisbon to seed a research group, focused on the neurobiology of human behaviour, at the Institute of Molecular Medicine (iMM Lisboa), as an FCT-investigator, with the support of a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant.

Research-wise, I reported the first evidence that schizophrenia-risk genes can also predispose to bipolar disorder. During my PhD, I pioneered the combination of genetics and neuroimaging to elucidate, for the first time, how several genetic mutations implicated in those illnesses affect white matter structure and brain activation during verbal fluency. As a post-doc with a pharmacogenetics company (Optimal Medicine, Ltd), I described how some of these mutations can also explain why people respond differently to antipsychotics. As a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR, UK) fellow, I have also worked on a genetic/imaging/environmental biomarker to predict who is likely to suffer from schizophrenia, using machine learning – an exciting and highly translational tool we are still developing.

My new research flow is on the biological basis of social cognition and its impairment, for which I, together with a brilliant diverse team of medical doctors, psychiatrists, biologists, psychologists and biomedical engineers, materialise our curiosity for the oxytocin system, using neuropharmacology, magnetic resonance neuroimaging, psychophysiology, psychology, neuropsychology, genetics, epigenetics and computational modeling techniques. We want to better understand how we evolved our social abilities, asking for example, via what biological mechanisms do we cooperate, predict each others’ intentions and perceive others’ feelings – and, find clues to help treat social cognitive symptoms such as those in autism, anorexia nervosa or psychosis.

A second branch of our work is to build clinically useful multimodal biomarkers for aiding clinical diagnostic and prognostic predictions – which we, partnering with the Institute for Biophysics and Biomedical Engineering of University of Lisbon, are bringing to hospitals via our new start up company, NeuroPsyCAD.

In sum, our interest is the molecular biology of human behaviour, which we aim to translate into improving etiological and therapeutic models of neuropsychiatric disorders.

Diana Prata

Photography by Tiago Figueiredo