Åsa Konradsson Geuken gives us tools to understand diseases of the brain
6 September 2022
“My mission is to replace prejudice and fear with knowledge and curiosity,” says Åsa Konradsson Geuken, researcher and lecturer with a focus on schizophrenia. A mental disorder that affects approximately one percent of the world's population, among them Åsa's older brother Mats.
When I was 14 years old, the word schizophrenia was the ugliest word I had ever heard, today I think it is a beautiful word. My brother's illness has given me a strength that drives me as a researcher. These words belongs to Åsa Konradsson Geuken, Senior Lecturer at Uppsala University. These words are also the first lines of the chapter "Sickly Creative Genes" in a newly published scientific book on the links between creativity and madness.
“The book is already on my bedside table, and the authors offer really interesting perspectives on mental health and psychiatric disorders. Among many things, they highlight how many people with mental illness that possesses creative talents, but also that their immediate family often have similar abilities. For me, who haven't really perceived myself as a creative person, the text has become an eye-opener,” says Åsa.
36 years have passed since the day Åsa's life changed forever. Her older brother Mats, who had moved to do military service in northern Sweden, suddenly developed a psychosis. He heard voices and saw distorted faces, but managed to make it to the train back to Stockholm. In Ljusdal the voices became unbearable. He got off the train, phoned their father and said he couldn't take it anymore. That he would commit suicide. The diagnosis was established as schizophrenia. For Mats' younger sister, the world fell apart. "No one should never ever find out about this out" was her immediate reaction. The parents, who knew better, built a safety net around her without their daughter's knowledge: teachers, basketball coaches, and friends' parents.
“I couldn’t stand the thought of being associated with schizophrenia. For five years I distanced myself from my brother. It wasn’t until I graduated high school that I felt ready to recreate our relationship. It took time, but today Mats is my idol again and we hang together like peas and carrots. Mats' illness has also guided me in several life-changing decisions. Without my brother and the disease he suffer from, I would not have gained my doctorate degree. And I certainly would not spend so much energy giving lectures on schizophrenia. My mission is to replace prejudice and fear with knowledge and curiosity, and I do it by providing facts and increased understanding.”
Åsa herself seeks new knowledge in her role as a researcher at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences. Her primary goal is to find answers to why some people develop schizophrenia. So far, science is limited to hypotheses about probable risk factors: genetics, inherited vulnerability, childhood trauma, growing up in urban environments, and addiction. Just to mention a few. But if researchers succeed in bringing clarity in the underlying mechanisms, the hope is to also enable the development of new generations of antipsychotic drugs.
“Today there is no curative treatment for schizophrenia. The antipsychotic drugs that are available may alleviate some symptoms and, at best, provide a tolerable existence. Against impaired cognitive deficits, which are often the most difficult to stand, we and the healthcare have hardly any tools. The fact that several major companies some ten years ago decided to dismiss their research within the field could have been a terminal blow, but now the industry is experiencing a reawakened interest. For example, a project in which we were involved in recently resulted in a new drug being introduced on the US market.”
In 2015, Uppsala University recruited Åsa Konradsson Geuken from Karolinska Institutet. A career step she defines as the best in her professional life. She describes the environment as a "warm embrace", the scientific breadth as "beneficial". After positions at the Department of Neuroscience and the Evolutionary Biology Centre, she is now part of the Faculty of Pharmacy's section of Neuropharmacology and Addiction Research.
“As Senior lecturer in pharmacology I devote a lot of time to teach about the diseases that affect the brain, available drugs and the stigma that is often aimed not least to schizophrenia. Nevertheless, I primarily see myself as a researcher, studying, among other things, network activity and neurochemistry involved in cognitive deficits seen in schizophrenia - knowledge that can eventually enable new treatment strategies. The techniques we use are of great interest also to the industry, and we continuously accept external assignments that provide us with important financial contributions in a field where grants do not increase according to the challenge our society is facing.”
Schizophrenia affects approximately one percent of the world’s population. It is on the verge of being classified as national disease, but is nevertheless often categorized under "other" in the relatively few calls for funding made within the field of neuroscience. Nor are there large funds and foundations to seek research funding from, something Åsa Konradsson Geuken explains with a widespread inability to relate to mental illness.
“Whether it's prejudice or ignorance, a charity gala about schizophrenia would most likely make television viewers switch to another channel. Thus, we must clarify that no person is her illness and that it is nothing to be ashamed of. Therefore, when I finish my work day, my next “job” starts. I lecture, write books and debate articles and I am a board member in several Swedish and international associations. My experience is that with increased insight, we can all find the courage to ask how someone is doing and dare to wait and listen for the answer. If we also make sure we have the knowledge to help a person in crisis, we have gathered the tools to save lives.”
Facts Åsa Konradsson Geuken
- Title Senior lecturer at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences
- Happy to discuss Stigma and how our use of words can affect society's view of mental illnesses. Don't say you suffer from anxiety if you're just a bit nervous about an exam, and never ask if someone "is schizo", just as you would not ask if someone "is cancer".
- I remember meeting Hans Rosling, public educator and Professor of International Health, for whom I attended a course in Global Medicine. He remains my educational role model and is an inspiration to always package and present information based on the audience.
- On a perfect day I'm in the ski lift on the way up a slope or steering a mountain bike at full speed downhill with an adrenaline rush is at its peak.
- My Talk Show Would focus on the story of me and my brother. How his illness has caused struggles with great sorrows and challenges, but also joy, positive experiences and is a decisive reason why I got to where I am today.