The impact of neurological disorders has drastically increased in Central Africa over the last decades but associated research, training and treatment have lagged far behind. Several researchers from the region are mobilizing efforts to address this issue but are still severely challenged by a lack of adequate training in basic neuroscience and isolating, unsupportive conditions that discourage involvement. To start providing effective training, motivation and networking opportunities to young researchers, Dr. Carine Ngeumeni (University Hospital, Würzburg, Germany) and Professor Constant Anatole Pieme (University of Yaoundé I, Cameroon) organized the IBRO-ARC/International Society for Neurochemistry (ISN) Neuroscience School this year.
Low Preparation, High Motivation
A preliminary survey of the 26 participating students showed that more than 50% of them worked on the neuroprotective and/or therapeutic effects of medicinal plant extracts on the nervous system in various physiological or clinical conditions, and that an average of 52% of the students had never been to a neuroscience school before. Only 40% of them had a theoretical background in the techniques that were presented in the practical sessions. Most importantly, organizers found that students were motivated to pursue a career in research but felt discouraged by the limited training, infrastructure and lack of opportunities.
When asked the question, “How prepared do you feel you are to pursue a research career that involves competitive neuroscience research grants?, 98% of the students answered, “Not at all”.
Confronting Regional Challenges
The IBRO-ARC/ISN School directly confronted existing regional challenges to capacity development in neuroscience and took concrete steps in establishing a foundation upon which a future for the field could be built in Cameroon. The school was sponsored by IBRO-ARC, ISN and the Company of Biologists and held between 23-27 July 2018 in the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Science at the University of Yaoundé I. The curriculum was based around the theme ‘Basic Neuroscience Research in Small Animals’ and included 26 students who were taught by 10 faculty members. Additional support in the form of donated equipment was provided by TReND in Africa and the Institut de Pharmacologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire. The University of Yaoundé I and its Faculty of Medicine contributed administrative support as well as the venue, laboratories and several facilities free of charge.
The school’s program focused on basic biology techniques and specific neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and stroke. Lectures took place in the morning followed by practical sessions in the afternoon. The lectures covered a broad range of topics from basic neurobiology to clinical aspects of pathologic conditions and their behavioural assessments in animals. The practical work took place every afternoon for the first three days in three different laboratories. Students divided into three groups, rotating through each laboratory to become familiar with behavioural tests, the western blot, biophysical properties of the neuron, dissecting a rat brain and histology. The school’s main learning objectives listed below were successfully achieved.
1. Understand the basic neurobiology of neurons and simple aspects of neuronal function like neuron resting and action potential
2. Have a good overview of the potential of phytotherapy against neurological diseases in Africa
3. Be able to describe the physiopathology of Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and stroke, the available therapeutic options and the clinical challenges
4. Be able to perform behavioural tests in mice and plan experimental designs, including immunohistochemistry and western blotting (in small animals)
5. Improve analytical, presentation and writing skills
6. Be more motivated and better equipped to pursue research in neuroscience
Forging a Future
Professor James Olopade (University of Ibadan, Nigeria) gave a talk situating Central Africa within the region, identifying the countries that make up this sub-region (Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Rwanda and São Tomé and Príncipe) and their shared problems. Along with the lack of training, infrastructure and resources, Olopade noted that the Central African sub-region accounts for only 9.1% of the total publications on neuroscience in Africa. He also brought attention to the fact that most of these are either in predatory journals, journals with very low impact factors or in journals that are not indexed. At the end of his talk, he emphasized the opportunities available in interdisciplinary research, improved publications, increased mentoring and effective networking and collaboration. These were the most important areas to focus on based on his own career experience and the benefits he saw participating in IBRO and ISN schools.
Professor Alfred Njamnshi (University of Yaoundé I) also spoke and presented a specific case-study scenario through which disease-condition burdening a community or region could spur scientific education, research, networking and collaboration. The results of years of research on neurological connections of river blindness, schistosomiasis and epilepsy in Africa illustrated this. Both Olopade and Njamnshi agreed that interdisciplinary, fruitful collaboration and good science are at the bottom of sustainable South-South or intra-continental collaboration.
Two final key events that were highlighted included a faculty-only session to discuss the future of neuroscience in Cameroon and a symposium on the last day where external faculty presented their own work and ideas. During the discussions and presentations, both internal and external faculty agreed that the main difficulties now facing Cameroon specifically are those related to the lack of research equipment and finding qualified teachers in the various neuroscience disciplines. In order to overcome these obstacles, several suggestions were made. These included strengthening the recently created Master’s degree program in neuroscience at the University of Yaoundé I, creating additional programs at other universities in Cameroon and organizing a Cameroon Society of Neuroscience (CSN) which could be linked to other international neuroscience societies and organizations. A final resolution was taken by participating local faculty to connect with their fellow colleagues at other universities and organize the first Neuroscience Day in 2019.
IBRO is eager to see how these efforts will help neuroscience prosper in Cameroon and looks forward to continuing our engagement with them in the future.