Meet the Researcher: Paul J. Lucassen



Paul Lucassen is professor of Brain Plasticity at the Faculty of Science of the UvA, one of the three faculties represented in the Centre for Urban Mental Health. His group studies how our brain adapts to a complex, changing, -and often challenging-, outside world.   

Current research topics involve the molecular, hormonal and environmental factors that determine, -and program-, brain plasticity, with a special focus on; stem cells and cognition in relation to; (early life) stress, nutrition, exercise, environmental enrichment, depression, PTSD, addiction and dementia.  Lucassen was one of the co-applicants of the UMH project and is on the Management Board of Urban Mental Health.    

In what way can your expertise and field of work contribute to the Centre?  

“Our expertise revolves around the effects that many environmental factors and stressors have on the brain during different stages of life. That is particularly relevant for UMH where similar questions are studied in an urban context and where we try to understand how the busy ‘city life’ can affect our vulnerability to addiction, depression and mental health problems in general. To study the huge complexity of an urban setting, you have to look at the bigger picture and need a broad and complexity perspective. Ideally, this takes into account all relevant data from that environment, that allow us to build network models of how they are interconnected.    

Obviously, living in an urban environment alone is not enough and also genetic risk factors, early/adolescent life history, individual upbringing, education and personality play major roles in determining one’s vulnerability to mental health disorders. We try to take these factors along in our human studies and cellular/animal models, where we can perform controlled experiments manipulating these factors and study related brain changes. By taking a broad interdisciplinary perspective, we ultimately hope to develop novel interventions, that can in principle take place at many different levels; via policy making, social incentives, (neuro)biological and/or psychological/behavioral approaches.   

"Plan your work, and then work your plan."

What are the most important aspects – for you – to maintain good mental health?

“I guess the common, general things, like (trying to) sleep and eat well, sufficient exercise, spending time with family and friends, but also making sure to plan my work well. To a certain extent, [working in] science is ‘top sport’, and you have to put in a lot of effort in, in order to succeed [both mentally and professionally]. You thus also have to invest in yourself and schedule everything well in order to really get things done; ‘Plan your work, and then work your plan’. You can have great plans, but if you get easily distracted, or let others interrupt you, you won't finish them on time. I try to schedule more time than seems initially necessary (‘plan bruto’) and then stick to that plan. I have the impression that nowadays the constant distraction and interruptions, e.g. by social media, cause problems for many, by disturbing their original plans; things get then pushed forward, which eventually causes a shortage of time and hence stress.” 

Are you more of a city or country person?

“I like both, the variety, actually. I live in Amstelveen, which is close to both the forest [Amsterdamse Bos, one of the largest city parks in Europe] and the city of Amsterdam. I appreciate the vibrant life of the city, the many different people around you, and the many cultures that come together. Especially the ‘buzz’ and liveliness of all the activities taking place in Amsterdam are I think unique. It also is great that you can be anywhere within a short amount of time; you can come home and decide to be at the movies or visit some friends an hour later. Friends living nearby is definitely important too. On the other hand, I find it also pleasant to be able to close the door and just go out for a walk, or run, in nature. I wouldn't be able to live far out back in the countryside, I would feel isolated and do not think it would be interesting enough for me. Having said that, I used to live in Amsterdam West, in an old, noisy building, which was a great location, but I have to admit I was very happy to move to a more quiet place with more nature in close proximity. In that respect, it is really important that cities have green spaces and parks. These are pleasant places to get out and about, exercise, meet others, breathe some fresh air if you will, which all contributes to people’s enjoyment and mental health.”

What (work) achievement are you most proud of?

“For me, I am most proud of the different people in our team, who all do great research in their own subfield, each with their own qualities and largely complementary expertise. I also like the fact that we study plasticity at several different levels. I do not want us to overfocus on only one small topic, or ‘fight a rearguard action’; we rather aim to cover a wide range of relevant topics. From various molecular and ‘-omics’ approaches to cellular and animal models to behavior, to human postmortem brain, cohort studies and brain imaging, from descriptive to intervention studies, and from acute to long-term studies. The topics we work on are very timely and I find them very interesting and relevant, and although some questions will never be fully resolved, I believe we do make small steps towards a better understanding and solving parts of the bigger puzzle, which I find stimulating and gratifying in itself. In my position, I feel it should be about putting aside your ego and focus on ‘servant leadership’; trying to enable and support each other as much as possible in doing exciting research on interesting questions.”


What is the best piece of (academic) advice you have ever received? 

Initially, that was; ‘Work hard and demand a lot of yourself, but expect little from others, that will save you a lot of frustration.’ By now, I have learned that that is no longer productive or sustainable, and it is better to ask yourself the question: "Do-I-have-to-do-this-now?". Ask the question to yourself five times, each time focusing on a different word of the phrase, which then gives you an answer to questions like: Is this really up to me to do this, or can someone else help me, or do it even better? Does it have to happen now, or can it wait? Is it the right way of doing? Etc. Asking yourself these questions can at least for me, help clear the mind. We often tend to do everything, just because we think it comes with the job, or is expected of you, or because it has worked well before, but re-evaluating those thoughts can sometimes save a lot of time and make a big difference.”

Another quote (of Stephen Covey) I like is: ‘Sharpen the Saw’, which is somewhat synonymous with “self-care” and refers to a story of someone very busy trying to cut down a large tree. He has to hurry but it is not going well as the saw is slowly becoming blunt. Nevertheless, he speeds up, sawing away ferociously with even more effort and energy, and gets of course very tired and progress is very slow. In fact, it is much more efficient to pause, sharpen the saw, and then continue; it will then be much easier to complete the task. Sometimes you need a break to rethink the most effective approach so you can continue fresh and efficient again.”

What do you hope to have accomplished in 10 years?

“I hope by then to have contributed with our team itself, and via the students we have trained in our master programs, to a better understanding of how our brain works, in particular as to what defines and programs plasticity, and how we can maybe utilize or recruit it for situations and brain disorders in which plasticity and resilience is lost. With all the amazing new techniques, approaches and opportunities available nowadays, it truly is an exciting time to study the brain, and I feel very privileged to participate in that journey. Within UMH, I am very enthusiastic about the many exciting opportunities to link complexity and network approaches to more fundamental insights into how the brain and individuals are responding to, and thriving in, an urban context. I hope that in 10 years, we will have advanced our understanding of how the brain works, and how it adapts to negative, and positive, environmental factors, and that we will have made some important steps towards integrating, analyzing and extracting valuable information from complex, large datasets, and better understand the fundamental mechanistic underpinnings as well. From there, I hope we can identify and target already some options for intervention and/or prevention of mental disorders.”

According to Paul Lucassen, we should keep an eye out for …

“They are both busy developing their own unique signature in the field and are young, enthusiastic and promising researchers, who I think will achieve a lot in the future.”

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