As a young high school student, Dr. Julio Martinez-Trujillo wanted to study mathematics, but his father suggested he consider another path and pursue medicine. This change in plans was the beginning of a journey which began in Cuba and has taken Dr. Martinez to three different continents where he practised medicine, taught and mentored residents, completed a PhD in neurobiology and set up research labs focused on working memory, short-term memory and autism.
Dr. Martinez-Trujillo arrived in London and to the labs at Robarts Research Institute in 2014. He came with his family and a team of researchers along with a hope to find solutions to the core symptoms of autism and cognitive dysfunctions such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and memory disorders. He now serves as an Associate Professor, Robarts Scientist and the Provincial Endowed Academic Chair in Autism.
We caught up with Dr. Martinez-Trujillo to learn more about his background, his team and his research.
What was your pathway to becoming a researcher?
I studied medicine and completed my residency in Cuba and then moved to Bogotá, Colombia as a professor in neurophysiology. While I was there, I also worked for a non-profit organization that provided services to children from marginalized communities who had epilepsy. I loved working there; I loved teaching and I loved caring for the young patients that I saw on a regular basis.
Eventually, I started a private practice. As my work continued, I became frustrated with the lack of knowledge that we had in understanding the processes of the brain and frustrated with how that lack of knowledge limited my abilities to care for my patients. I decided to pursue my PhD in neurobiology and went to Germany to complete that training.
I came to Canada in 2000, and it was really one of the best decisions I have ever made. I spent 10 years at McGill University before coming to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry at Western University and setting up my lab at Robarts.
Can you tell us about your lab?
Yes, we have a great lab and we are working on the seventh floor and main floor at Robarts. There are a few undergraduate students who work with me, nine graduate trainees, four post-doctoral trainees and a few lab technicians. I also have multiple collaborations with teams at Robarts, Western, across Canada and, in fact, around the world.
What is your research focused on?
As the Provincial Chair in Autism, I’m further developing, consolidating and enhancing the existing capacity at Robarts and Western to conduct research, teach and train in autism studies.
I’m very interested in answering the questions:
>How does the brain control attention?
>What allows some people to focus on things while others aren’t able to?
And I’m hoping to answer these questions as it relates to attention and how the brain filters information, working memory, short-term memory and cognitive dysfunctions. And, I’ll use and do whatever is needed to answer these questions. So, our lab is looking at using a wide range of tools and developing numerous collaborations at the University and beyond so that we can answer the questions.
What is your hope for this research?
My dream would be to find solutions to the core symptoms of autism or other cognitive dysfunctions. To do this, we are focused on brain mapping and doing reverse engineering, where the researchers retrace the electrical activity from the muscles that produce behaviour to the brain circuits that are responsible for activating these muscles.
One of the problems is that, as researchers, we just don’t have enough knowledge yet of the systems within the brain.
Ultimately, it is my hope that my research can provide the knowledge that we need to design interventions to control the symptoms.
There seems to be a great deal of misinformation about autism available online. How can individuals be sure they are reading accurate information?
Yes, unfortunately the information online is not curated and that has caused a lot of misinformation. If people are looking for more information, they really need to connect with the societies or charities that are associated directly with the disease. Other trusted sources include: the International Society for Autism Research, Simons Foundation or Autism Speaks.
We also host a Development Disabilities Research Day annually, which is focused on research in cognitive dysfunctions, and we’d welcome the general public to attend.
I think we also have to find a way to better educate the media, so that when they are sharing news, they have a better understanding of dysfunction.