Discovering more about Alzheimer's in unexpected locations

Currently working at the Institute of Vision in Paris, Dr. Farah Ouechtati recently received a research fellowship from the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program. Originally from Tunisia, Farah Ouechtati began her research focusing on the genetic basis of eye diseases and more specifically inherited retinal diseases. Some causative genes when under-expressed lead to progressive photoreceptor degenerations. Scientists discovered a gene encoding for a protein involved in the degenerative process that may also have a role in Alzheimer’s disease. Farah Ouechtati will use her fellowship to study this gene, Nxnl2, in more details.

DiscovHER: What first attracted you to the field of neuroscience and genetics?

Farah Ouechtati: Human twinning, likeness and heredity have always sparked my interest. Neurosciences allow me to understand the senses, and their physiology.

DiscovHER: Your current work explores the relationship between a specific gene in the eyes and Alzheimer’s disease. What impact could this research have on people dealing with Alzheimer’s?

Farah Ouechtati: My current work is focused on a gene expressed in the eyes and in the brain. Understanding the molecular mechanisms regulating its expression will allow us to promote a strategy aimed at stimulating the expression of this therapeutic gene as a treatment for neurological diseases, namely Alzheimer’s disease.

DiscovHER: Describe your experience as a female scientist in a predominantly male field.

Farah Ouechtati: Being a woman and a scientist is a double challenge. On the one hand, we must reconcile family life and professional life, and on the other hand, we must lead research and present new relevant research proposals to be a good scientist.

I never had any discrimination as a post doc or a PhD. But I hope that only my skills are considered for recruitment. Science is for everyone, it concerns all. Each one can bring something different to elucidate biological phenomena. Men and women have different perceptions and I think that this point enriched the scientific world with relevant ideas and views.

DiscovHER: Are there methods that can be used to strengthen our eyes and prevent eye diseases you are studying? If so, what types?

Farah Ouechtati: Ocular diseases like retinitis pigmentosa are genetic disorders due to inherited or de novo mutations. For some of them, it is now possible to make a prognosis, to predict an appropriate treatment by molecular diagnosis, mainly for families with members dealing with ocular disease. I worked with these retinal diseases during my PhD and discussed with families about consanguinity effects. It is very important to explain the diseases, and prevent them with ophthalmologic monitoring. There are also multifactorial ocular diseases like age macular degeneration that result from environmental factors like age, smoking, other risk factors and diet. In these cases, lifestyle is important to prevent such diseases.

DiscovHER: In these summer months, what is important to keep in mind to protect the eyes?

Farah Ouechtati: Sunglasses. It is important to protect the eyes from direct sunlight. UV rays are intensive and can affect vision.

DiscovHER: What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of research? And your favorite aspect?

Farah Ouechtati: Changing focus. Researching the eye, and then moving on to the brain. Then going back to the eye and focusing on the two as a whole system. This is difficult in the beginning, but then something interesting will happened. I have a broader vision and a new context. In Science, the physiological context is a crucial notion because it is defined by a state of equilibrium, a functional system, connections between cells, tissues, organs. It is a good challenge that brings me a better understanding of the healthy physiological context and the disease, and prompts me to develop efficient therapeutic approaches.

Farah Ouechtati received a research fellowship from the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program.

For Women in Science

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