Andrea Moreu, winner of the special award and the award for best final project for the Master's Degree in Neuropsychology
"My big ambition has always been to understand how our brain works"
Andrea Moreu: "Now I want to do a doctoral degree, start working as a neuropsychologist and enjoy this new period as a professor"
By Marian Antón
What would you highlight about your career?
I've always been involved in caring for people. Initially as a health worker and then as a nurse, a profession I've been working in since I completed the diploma (2008), enjoying and combining it with my training and specialization in psychology. Now I've also begun working occasionally as a neuropsychologist. Within the nursing field, I've always worked in the broad neurological and psychiatric spectrum, from hospitals to old people's homes and associations. Now, after specializing in Neuropsychology and Movement Disorders, my work is focused on holistic care of Parkinson’s disease sufferers and their carers and families at national level. Moreover, I have very recently joined the UAB as an adjunct professor of Nursing.
Why did you decide on the Master’s Degree in Neuropsychology?
While I was studying Psychology, I already knew that a specialization or later training was absolutely essential in order to provide quality care. Psychology studies only provide a foundation, a general overview of everything it embraces. It would never be enough to deal with a patient. My big ambition has always been to understand how our brain works: why we are the way we are, do what we do, feel what we feel and react the way we react. And, more specifically, to know the difference between Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and frontotemporal dementia: they are all neurodegenerative diseases but not the same and, therefore, should not be treated as such. This is why the specialization in Neuropsychology was almost a necessity for me.
Why specifically did you choose the UOC?
I knew it as a university that, a priori, allowed good online training. I have always combined work and studies and, until the master’s degree, I had always studied on-site. I like going to class but, for work reasons, I had to give up the on-site master’s degree in Neurosciences. I started working at national level as a nurse and it was unfeasible to pursue any kind of on-site training. If I wanted to go on training with the goal of attaining a doctoral degree and further exploring how our brain works, I had to look for a good university and training to match my expectations and motivations. That’s when I saw the new UOC Master’s Degree in Neuropsychology advertised. I knew the name of some of the professors, coordinators and course instructors and took the plunge. The three aspects that helped me make the final decision were a good team of professionals, the possibility of an on-site internship and that the door was open to a doctoral degree, as it was an official master’s degree.
Has it met your expectations?
Completely. There are always aspects that can be improved in the early years. But, undoubtedly, all the knowledge acquired is comparable to other on-site courses.
Let’s talk about your final master's degree project. What subject did you choose?
The subject of my final master's degree project focuses on bilingualism as a component of cognitive reserve and its potential neuroprotective effect on neurodegenerative diseases, specifically Huntington’s disease. In order to understand the reason for the choice of subject and relationship between these variables, there are two key aspects that must be understood: what Huntington’s disease is and why bilingualism is a neuroprotective factor.
Can you explain the first? What is Huntington’s disease?
HD is a very serious neurodegenerative and hereditary disease that involves eminently dysexecutive motor, psychiatric and cognitive symptoms. In addition, unfortunately, despite having a slow progression, it is fatal within 15 years after the appearance of the first symptoms. At present, as in other neurodegenerative diseases, there is no cure, making it very necessary to examine all the possible neuroprotective factors that modulate its inevitable course and that of other pathologies.
And what factor does bilingualism have as a neuroprotector?
The reason that using two languages is considered a neuroprotective variable is precisely because the brain structures that degenerate in HD are related to the cognitive control mechanisms of bilingualism. In other words, they share areas of the brain that bilingual people constantly exercise by using two languages. Therefore, we studied how the use of two languages affects the structure and working of the brain in HD and, even further, what, if any, was the impact of bilingualism on the clinical variables and evolution of the disease. It is essential to emphasize that the idea was not, and is not, to compare monolingual and bilingual people, but as we are in a highly bilingual country (Catalan-Spanish, Spanish-Catalan), the objective was to be able to grade bilingual individuals from more to less according to the use of both languages throughout their lives. In order words, to see if with more “training” in the continued use of these cognitive control structures and mechanisms there were changes at a structural, functional and clinical level in HD.
What conclusions did you reach?
Very pleasingly, after the neuroimaging studies and neuropsychological and motor explorations, all the results indicated that bilingualism plays a neuroprotective role by maintaining the functional and structural integrity of specific areas that suffer this massive neurodegeneration in HD. The most noticeable is that all of this structural and functional modulation is clinically related to greater cognitive, motor and functional preservation. In the end, these results, beyond bilingualism and HD, make us reflect on the important role of early cognitive stimulation as a factor that strengthens cognitive reserve and, also, as a modulator of the progression of neurodegenerative diseases. You have to exercise the mind from a young age and continuously.
Why do you think your work deserved the award for one of the best final master's degree projects in the Faculty of Health Sciences?
The truth is that I was surprised. We had done a lot of work but I never thought about an award. If I had to cite an objective reason, a point in favour was the possibility of carrying out the complete research project with the help of the whole Movement Disorders Unit team at the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. And there were also the favourable results of the initial hypothesis, which as I said encouraged us to continue working on cognitive reserve and neurodegenerative diseases, on what we can do long before the appearance of any kind of cognitive deterioration to treat these pathologies, which at present are fatal. And, most importantly, this is not only applicable to pathologies but also to natural ageing.
What would you say to students who have to start their final master's degree project?
You need a lot of advice when you're starting out. You have lots of ideas in your head, you feel you have few resources and lots of doubts. Perhaps the main thing is to work on a subject you feel comfortable with, that you already know something about and want to explore further. The results of the work itself are the least important in the end. The main thing is to enjoy and learn from the whole process, and you do this when you are motivated.
What are your training or professional plans for the future?
You never know with me… But I do think I have three fronts or ideas in mind with no set timeframe. To do a doctoral degree, start working as a neuropsychologist and enjoy this new period as a professor. I’m already doing the last one!