Susanna Rosi is professor of neuroscience at University of California, San Francisco, and is also head of neuro-cognitive research at the university’s Brain and Spinal Injury Center. She is a lively Italian who wants to understand what happens to the brain when it becomes damaged and people lose cognitive abilities such as orientation, memory and the capacity to make decisions.
“As humans, we consist of memories. If we lose the ability to form new memories and remember things, then we are really losing ourselves. I want to be able to help people to remain as the people they are”, says Susanna Rosi.
Last summer, together with research colleagues in San Francisco, she demonstrated that a certain substance could enable brain-damaged mice to get their memories back. When the mice were given the substance known as ISRIB – Integrated Stress Response Inhibitor – they were able to learn and remember the path through a maze equally as well as mice that had never sustained brain injuries.
“This discovery is revolutionary and extremely exciting, particularly because we gave the substance to the mice four weeks after they’d sustained the brain injury – which, in humans, corresponds to three to four years after a brain injury. The mice at this stage were senile but, after they’d been given ISRIB, they had the same cognitive abilities as normal mice.”
From the Italian countryside
During her childhood, Susanna Rosi was already curious and keen to make new discoveries. She was born in 1976, and grew up in Tuscany with her parents and two older brothers.
Her father worked in a factory while her mother stayed at home, looking after the children and many animals – chickens, ducks, rabbits and pigs. Susanna Rosi loved books and playing outdoors with her dog and her friends. The inspiration to study came from her eldest brother, who is 17 years older.
“He wanted to study but my parents could not afford it. Instead, he bought his own factual books – about space, about the brain, about everything. I wanted to be just like him, so I read his books and found them truly fascinating. I wanted to know everything!”
By the time it was Susanna’s turn to have the option of continuing her studies at upper-secondary school, the family was better able to afford to support her – partly because her eldest brother was also working by then. She went on to study biology at the University of Florence (Università degli Studi di Firenze) in order to obtain broader knowledge about everything that interested her.
Working as a waitress
Susanna Rosi’s studies were financed by means of scholarships, which she was awarded due to her good study results, and which she supplemented by working as a waitress.
“It was fun being a waitress, and when you’re in your twenties you can handle everything – you work at night and then go to school during the day. I would be on the verge of collapse if I tried to live the same way now”, she laughs.
Initially, her parents were concerned, because nobody else in the family had ever embarked on higher education before. They were reassured, however, when they understood that Susanna was doing well. In fact, it turned out that she was doing very well.
“I took my degree ahead of schedule and got top marks, so they were ecstatic and very, very proud. They have always been proud of me.”
Led to the brain by chance
It was pure coincidence that led to the brain becoming Susanna Rosi’s specialist area. Her training included an internship at a laboratory.
“I had loved working with anything connected to the human body, and by chance I ended up in a lab where they were conducting research into Alzheimer’s disease. Once I’d discovered the brain, I realised there was nothing else that could interest me more.”
She stayed on at this laboratory and gained her PhD in 2000 with a thesis on inflammation and Alzheimer’s. Her intention was to then get a good job that would enable her to help her family.
Encouraged to travel abroad
“But my mentor – professor Giancarlo Pepeu at the University of Florence – told me that I would get bored working in industry, and that I should continue my research. He saw to it that I came into contact with a colleague at the University of Arizona in the USA, who was looking for a postdoc researcher.”
Researching in Italy was never an option, and neither is it now, according to Susanna Rosi.
“There are very few positions for researchers to apply to in Italy, and those that do arise are often given to the children of acquainted professors. It is also difficult to get funding for research, even if one is able to find a position. I was incredibly lucky to have a mentor who encouraged me to travel abroad.”
Passion and love in the USA
Susanna Rosi moved to Arizona with the intention of staying for a couple of years, after which she would return home and help her family.
“But when I experienced first-hand what it is like to research in the USA, I realised that I have a great passion for research”, she smiles.
Susanna Rosi stayed in Arizona as a postdoc for four years, and by the time she was due to move on, she’d met her husband. He was from San Francisco, and she got a position at the University of California, San Francisco in 2006.
“I was lucky because UCSF is such a great place to be – nice and friendly, and with lots of collaboration. It’s one of the best three universities in the USA for research.”
Researching brain damage
Susanna Rosi is currently researching three categories of brain damage. The focus is on brain damage caused by physical trauma, such as the damage that people sustain by falling or from car accidents. The second category concerns damage caused by radiation treatment in conjunction with brain tumours, and the final category involves cosmic radiation.
“We collaborate with NASA, which wants to know whether astronauts would be able to travel to Mars and then function normally when they return home. Research shows that radiation in outer space affects the brains and cognitive ability of rodents, so it is likely that this would also affect the brains of humans.”
The election of President Trump has been a cause of concern in Susanna’s professional circles, but the research has continued as normal.
“There have been rumours that there will be cuts to research funding, but fortunately we have not yet seen any sign of this. But this is a challenging time, and people are afraid and worried.”
Inspired by own research team
Susanna Rosi is fortunate enough to derive a great deal of energy from her research team of postdocs and doctoral students.
“I find it refreshing to work with young people. They’re always coming up with new ideas, they’re passionate and they’re enthusiastic about trying new things.”
Among other things, the team is investigating the role of the immune system in cases of brain damage. This is activated in order to heal the brain following injury, but its effect is not always positive. If the immune system is not deactivated after a certain period of time, it can go on to damage the nerve cells.
“We are trying to understand both the length of this time period and which parts of the immune system have a positive or negative effect on the nerve cells. There remains much to be done.”
Restores the memory
Susanna Rosi also continues to conduct research into ISRIB – the substance that restores the memory to brain-damaged mice. Normally, the production of protein by the nerve cells is slowed following an injury, but ISRIB eases this restriction, allowing protein production to increase again.
“We are now testing the effect of ISRIB on older mice, which have lost their ability to store memories as a natural part of the ageing process. The hope is that these older mice will also regain their memories”, says Susanna Rosi.
It will be some time until ISRIB may be used in pharmaceuticals, but other substances that Susanna Rosi has studied are now being clinically tested. These could result in effective pharmaceuticals within just a few years, and provide hope for a better quality of life for those with brain damage.
Twins increased focus
Susanna Rosi use her working hours to good effect. She became the mother of twins five years ago, and believes that the children have made her a more efficient researcher.
“Combining motherhood with an academic career is extremely doable. It is important that young women hear this – that it is possible to find a balance.”
At the same time, she remains in close contact with her family in Italy. Every weekend, there’s a three or four-hour session on Skype so that her children can get to know their Italian relatives. Susanna reflects that she has allowed life to lead the way.
“Twenty years ago, I had no idea that I would become a neuroscientist, and I would never have dreamed that I would be living in the USA. It is important to stay open to what life has to offer – then the next step often presents itself naturally. Life is a continual surprise.”