Hanna Isotalus

Hanna Isotalus, PhD Student in Medicine
University of Bristol


What is your work/research topic? I attempt to unravel how a brain structure called the hippocampus and a neurotransmitter called dopamine contribute to memory organization and storage in ageing and amnesic disease. Currently, I work on some exciting projects using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the hippocampus, electroencephalography of sleep (that’s the brainwaves), and some pharmacological interventions too.

I am about to start collecting data for a study called DOPAMIND. If you ask me, this is my most exciting study. There is some evidence that increased dopamine might improve memory, and I believe it does so by enhancing processes involved in storing memories while we sleep. In this study my volunteers will learn a memory task and after that I will be giving them either a drug that increases dopamine in the brain or a placebo. They will then sleep at the study site for a full night while I record their sleep. In the morning I will test their memory, and I hope they will remember a little bit better when they have more dopamine activity going on.

These volunteers will also have a magnetic resonance scan (MRI) which I can use to look at sizes and shapes of the hippocampus among other things. This structure is not uniform but instead consists of multiple subfields that are anatomically and functionally separable. In other words, different types of cells with different types of missions live in each subfield. I have previously found that subfield sizes within this area are differentially associated with the ability to store memories over short delays. Now I am hoping to find out if sizes of any of these subfields are important for retaining information over longer delays. This is a really important question because we know that in Alzheimer’s dementia some subfields are more affected than others, and one of the first symptoms is a problem in remembering information over long delays.

The procedure is fairly comprehensive and involved a lot of sleepless nights collecting data but I trust it will all pay off in the end and I’ll find out some answers to these interesting questions.

ISOTLAUS_H.1altHanna Isotalus is a PhD student at the University of Bristol. Follow Hanna @hisotalus

What was your best day of science? It was probably the day I gave a talk at a big conference in San Diego but I have something even better lined up. The best day will be the day when I get the first volunteer fully tested for the DOPAMIND study I mentioned before. It has taken me over two years to set this study up because it is a clinical trial and the regulations around these kinds of studies are strict. Now I am almost ready to start collecting data and I can’t wait to get started.

What was your worst day in science? When I tested my first volunteer for my first drug study. This should’ve been the best day of my PhD but this was the only time I’ve had a volunteer present with side effects, and I was nervous and mentally unprepared. In my research I sometimes use a drug that can cause nausea as a side effect, and despite taking an anti-sickness pill, this one time a volunteer got sick. So there I was, with a nearly 90-year-old volunteer who was so British about the whole ordeal she kept apologizing to me!

This was the worst day in science (so far) because as a scientist working with humans your first priority is to not cause any harm to your volunteers. The last thing you want to do is to make someone ill, particularly if they are almost 90! Luckily, the volunteer made a quick recovery and she is the only one who has had any side effect, and we’ve dosed quite a few people now. Yet, ever since this happened we’ve made sure there are some sick bowls and extra anti-sickness drugs handy just in case…

ISOTALUS.H.2.Buttonbox.jpgWhat is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? My button response boxes! When we test volunteer’s memory we do it using a computer and participants make responses by pressing buttons on a response box or pad. Usually we buy these boxes but they are quite expensive so a friend of mine, who is an engineer and loves building stuff, built two boxes for me. They have arcade buttons and they make the most satisfying sound when you press them. I’m smiling just thinking about that sound!

I love my button boxes.



Where did you grow up? I grew up in a small town called Kokkola in the Finnish Central Ostrobothnia.

What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? A dog trainer, a zoo keeper, a veterinary nurse, or anything else where you get to hang out with animals.

ISOTALUS.H.3.VeryNiceCat.jpgWhat do you do to relax outside of lab? In the summer I get on my bike and ride. I live in South West England and there are some decent cycling paths around here. To balance it out I’m also into tacos and margaritas.

Do you have any pets? I have the loveliest cat back in Finland. I try to include her on my slides whenever I get to give a talk. Her name is Niilo and right before she falls asleep she sighs deeply. Sometimes she snores. Once she ate a third of a tub of margarine because someone left it on the table without a lid on. She is my hero.

Do you have any fun hobbies? I am training for a half marathon but I shouldn’t pretend that is fun.


What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Do what makes you happy and don’t be stopped by yourself or other people thinking you can’t do it. Because of course you can. Be aware but not burdened by implicit attitudes and if you’re interested in STEM careers, seek out people working in those fields, ask them questions, and go shadow their work. Most people love talking about what they do to people who are genuinely interested.

Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? Why were you drawn to science? Not any one event or one person but rather a fortunate series of events and people. I first became drawn to science during my undergraduate at the University of Glasgow. I just found the brain really fascinating and wanted to learn more and more about it. My department offered a lot of modules in cognitive neuroscience and I took as many of them as I could. One of them was based on the Oliver Sacks book ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’. Essentially, that book is a collection of unusual case stories of neurological patients. In this module we went through each patient in the book and tried to match their symptoms to possible brain pathology and to either cures or research that may lead to interventions in the future. It was fascinating to learn how big scientific discoveries are often built upon a body of basic research, how a lot of small stuff in the end can lead to discovering something big and meaningful.

I hadn’t seriously considered doing a PhD until my third year undergraduate supervisor, Prof Paddy O’Donnell, who sadly passed away last year, suggested it might be something I’d enjoy. Before that I didn’t have the confidence to pursue that interest but he really encouraged me by telling me he saw no reason why I couldn’t do it. Previously, I had this idea that people doing PhDs have some kind of an inborn ability that I don’t have. I realize now that that idea is nonsense.

Instead, the best scientists are those who consistently work hard, they’re not born brilliant.

Did you ever consider another career path? I went to university with the aim of becoming a clinical or educational psychologist.

What was your biggest challenge during your degree? Everything taking a lot longer than I initially think it will.

What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? While there are many, the biggest is my excitement about my work. My research questions are really interesting and I love seeing tasks I’ve designed actually work – at least ideally this happens. I feel really privileged to get to work in such an exciting field.

Another thing that keeps me motivated is the attitude of the people who volunteer for our studies. Many of them are driven to help beat dementia, or to enhance our understanding of how memory works, and they donate their time and effort to help us do this work. Working with these people and knowing how much they care really motivates me to make the most of that data. I have huge respect for those who participate in our studies.


What is your favorite book? A Brief History of Time. But ask me again tomorrow and I may give you a different answer. If you’re looking for a clinical neuroscience book, read Do No Harm by Henry Marsh, or pretty much anything by Oliver Sacks.
What is your favorite desk snack? Blueberries.
What would you listen to while writing? Recently Axel Thesleff’s ‘Bad Karma’, although I’m typically not that into EDM.
What color socks are you wearing? White with grey cats on them
Any other fun facts about you…. I’ve always loved animals and when I was a child I used to serenade the cows at my uncle’s farm. I don’t want to brag but the cows loved it.