Scientist Spotlight: Dr. Roy Sillitoe
Dr. Roy Sillitoe is a neuroscientist at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital and an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine. He has earned international recognition as a leader in the field of cerebellum research, with a focus on understanding the underlying causes of devastating motor diseases in order to improve the quality of life for those affected. We recently sat down with Dr. Sillitoe to learn more about his work and what inspires him to solve medical mysteries.
What inspired you to become a neuroscientist?
- My interest in the brain started when I was a child living in Zambia. I was fascinated watching my father piece together all sorts of things—machines as small as broken toasters and as large as the engines of 18-wheeler semi-trucks. I enjoyed helping him with both, especially when I got to drive the semi as a 9 year old! This interest in repairing things coincided with a realization that there were many kids my own age growing up without the ability to help their fathers because they suffered from incurable diseases. I would later become curious about the brain and loved the idea that if I could learn how all the little bits in the brain are put together, perhaps I could begin thinking about ways of trying to fix them.
- Since then, I have had the opportunity to study in three countries—Canada (Vancouver and Calgary), the U.K. (Oxford) and the United States (New York and Houston). What motivated and inspired me, then and now, is a love for learning and for making medical discoveries that can help people live happier, healthier lives. Today, I have the privilege of tinkering with the brain in hope of finding ways to repair broken circuits.
What is the focus of your research at the NRI?
- My team studies how brain circuits contribute to devastating neurological and neuropsychiatric diseases, such as dystonia, tremor, epilepsy and autism spectrum disorders. My most recent efforts are focused on how just one part of the brain—the cerebellum—acts as a central target in a number of cognitive and motor diseases. While tremendous progress has been made in the field, there is still little known about the causes of these diseases. To address these problems, my team is investigating how different brain connections form, how they function and how they fall apart.
Why is understanding movement disorders important?
- This is a major problem to tackle not only for children suffering from these diseases, but also because as we age, there is a greater burden on the brain to overcome the same obstacles. For example, balance issues are widespread in sick children, and in the elderly falls are the leading cause of death. Similarly, cognition and emotion are easily disturbed in developing children and as we age our ability to perform demanding mental tasks declines substantially. Our findings have already led to important discoveries that reveal how the electrical signals in the brain might spiral out of control to cause different diseases. We have used this information to design therapies that target and correct the faulty signals.
What is your favorite part of working at the NRI?
- Without question, it is the people. We think deeply about the science, but we also think about each other. We are colleagues and friends. This type of environment has a natural way of inspiring creativity. More so, our collaborations extend far beyond the walls of this building. Every day we are partnering with over 500 institutions around the world with one goal in mind: to develop treatments and, one day, cures.
What could we find you doing in your spare time, when you aren’t solving medical mysteries?
- I love spending time with my kids. My daughter is a natural born comedian and my son is a sports fanatic. Between the two of them, my wife and I spend our days either laughing hysterically or debating about the latest baseball statistics. When I have a few moments to myself, I draw. Drawing with pencil has always been relaxing for me, although I wish I had more time to formally learn art.