NCMM Appoints New Group Leader for Precision Medicine

NCMM is delighted to announce that Dr. Charlotte Boccara has been recruited as a new group leader under the Centre’s precision medicine umbrella. Dr. Boccara joins NCMM in April 2022 to establish and head the Systems Neuroscience & Sleep group, aiming to decode sleep function in healthy development.

Charlotte in a pink sweater with dark hair outside
Photo: Charlotte Boccara, Ola Nordal

Note: This article orginallly appeared on the NCMM website

Dr Boccara is a neuroscientist by training. She completed her PhD in the Moser lab at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), after which she became a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria, followed by a Research Associate position at King's College London. Funded by a Young Research Talent from the Norwegian Research Council in 2019, she leads the project “sleep and cognitive development” at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences (UiO). 

In this article, she discusses what led to her strong interest in sleep, cognition and development, and what her hopes and plans are for her time at NCMM. 

Decoding the inner workings of the brain

Dr Boccara has been driven by curiosity and the desire to understand everything from an early age. It was this inner motivation that drew her to brain research. She immersed herself in studying neuroscience through numerous internships, including at the renowned Pitié Salpêtrière hospital in Paris.

— As an undergraduate, I trained in many different laboratories, from the molecular level to the more integrated one, seeking out what triggered my interest. I remember vividly the first time that I saw, live on the screen, the wiggling lines corresponding to the brain activity of an animal sleeping next to me. This was the moment when I realised "this is what I want to do!", explained Dr Boccara

It was conducting research into neurological diseases and development that sparked her interest in the link between sleep, cognition, and development. After her master’s at Université Marie et Pierre Curie in Paris, she moved to Trondheim to begin a PhD project in the Nobel Prize-winning Moser lab at the Kavli institute (NTNU).

— My time with Edvard and May-Britt (Moser) was extremely enriching. It was a fantastic and vibrant Centre of Excellence. I went there to learn the tools necessary to decode brain activity. With such training, I finally had the means to study cognition – how we think, why we think, the inner workings of our brain and its pathologies, explained Dr Boccara.

Investigating the function of sleep

Dr Boccara aims to understand why sleep is so important for our health. Her research is built at the junction of  Systems Neuroscience, Computational Neuroscience and Developmental Biology. After her PhD and a maternity leave, she started her postdoctoral studies at the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria. Under the guidance of Jozsef Csicsvari, she received training in computational methods to decode sleep and complex cognitive mechanisms. This time in Vienna was followed by a brief stay at the MRC Centre led by Oscar Marin in King's College London, where she the learned molecular and viral tools necessary to engineer animal models of neurodevelopmental disorders. 

— Sleep is a crucial pillar of our health, and understanding its functions is one of the great scientific challenges of our time. While there are many debates as to why we must sleep, there is no doubt that it is most needed during development. Despite new evidence linking neural disorders and poor sleep, we still know very little of the vital mechanism taking place during sleep. This where I want to apply my efforts, said Dr Boccara

A few years ago, Dr Boccara decided to take the next step in her career and developed her independent research program in Norway at the University of Oslo. Indeed, being half-Norwegian and half-French, Dr Boccara always had a connection to Norway.

— Norway has always been exceptionally strong in brain research. This is one reason among many why I applied for a Young Research Talent grant to the Research Council of Norway. This award was instrumental in establishing my team and applying all that I had learned about interrogating cognition, sleep, and development, explained Dr Boccara.

Dr Boccara’s current research program consists of three main projects. The first one is centred on the role of sleep in healthy cognitive development. The second is the development of new wireless brain probes. The third just received support from a NFR synergy grant shared between IMB (Phillipe Collas, Nolwenn Briand, Charlotte Boccara) and UiO Physics department (Ørjan Martinsen) to  investigate the links between poor sleep during adolescence and the likelihood of developing metabolic disorders, such as diabetes or obesity. The translational potential of these three lines of research is a key motivation for Dr Boccara.

— Our goal is not only to demonstrate which mechanisms occurring during sleep are necessary for our health but also to flesh out physiological markers that could help us to diagnose early signs of abnormal sleep function, and thus open new avenues for therapeutics, said Dr Boccara.

Putting the Boccara Lab on the map of sleep research 

For Dr Boccara, becoming a group leader came at the right stage of her career. She was attracted to NCMM by the aura of excellence, the framework to boost her team’s potential and the opportunity for translational projects through NCMM’s hospital collaborations. She also looks forward to collaborating scientifically with other groups at NCMM, as well as training young scientists to develop their skills.

— It is an exciting time to do research in neuroscience. Technologic innovations are constantly pushing the envelope of what we can do. Actually, an important part of my work is technical development. As such, we were just awarded a grant from the Norwegian research Council to design new wireless brain probes, together with Sintef and IMB (Torkel Hafting), explained Dr Boccara

In her first 5-year period at NCMM she hopes to put her lab on the map of sleep research, developing tools to monitor and manipulate brain activity. She also plans to strengthen the translational aspect of her team, establishing collaboration with Oslo University Hospital.

When asked what advice she would give to young researchers starting out in their career, Dr Boccara advised, amongst other useful tips, learning to code, challenging yourself to be open to other disciplines outside your specialism, and being resilient when things don’t go according to plan.

– Seize opportunities, even create them if they don’t fall in your lap! Be resilient when things go wrong, be creative. And most of all, stay curious and keep the fun going! said Dr Boccara

Discussing the appointment, NCMM Director Professor Janna Saarela says:

— We are extremely happy to welcome Dr Boccara as a new member of the NCMM team. Her impressive expertise in neuroscience will perfectly complement NCMM’s focus on tackling fundamental biological questions with potential for applications to precision medicine. The translational impact of her research a significant attraction for us.