When the war began in Syria, Amal Alachkar was a neuroscientist in the pharmacy department at the University of Aleppo. It had taken her five years, but she says she finally managed to establish the country’s first neuroscience research lab.
She’s currently in exile and focusing on the mental well-being of newborn babies in Syria.
“I was able to publish several articles, from Syria, in international journals,” she remembers. “I was proud of this because we did it despite the prejudice towards research coming from developing countries.”
Alachkar’s success in Syria was down to her tough spirit, says one of her former colleagues. “Working with Amal was very stimulating,” says Abdul Rezzak Hamzeh, who left Aleppo in 2012 to work for the Centre for Arab Genomic Studies in Dubai.
“She actively initiates research and pushes very hard to overcome all hurdles until the job is done,” he adds. “Her personality is a mixture of tenacity, resilience and creativity that makes the best recipe for success in science.”
Her career in Aleppo was going well and her lab was budding; she had a lot to lose. But that didn’t keep her silent when the protests began back in 2011. “I thought it was our time,” she sighs. “We deserve a better life, with freedom, democracy and dignity, and so I spoke out from the beginning.”
Alachkar often spoke about how she thought the government’s response to what were then peaceful demonstrations was brutal. It wasn’t long before the security forces came to her lab and threatened her.
“The message was: this time is a warning. The second time, your tongue will be cut out,” she says. “I was supported by powerful faculty; otherwise I wouldn’t have been given a second chance.”
Soon after, she was accepted by the Hubert Humphrey fellowship to study at Pennsylvania State University. During this time, the police came back again to look for her at the University of Aleppo. When the fellowship came to a close, Alachkar says it was clear her life would be in danger if she returned home.
She applied to the Scholar Rescue Fund for help and in 2012 they awarded her a scholarship of $25,000 per year and a place at the University of California at Irvine. The university also matched the funding from the rescue fund. “It’s fantastic to work with her,” says Olivier Civelli, Alachkar’s supervisor and chair of the department of pharmacology. “She’s taken us in a new research direction, and she’s done it all by herself.”
The Scholar Rescue Fund contacted Civelli and told him there was a Syrian refugee who wanted to work with him. He was eager to help, even if he was initially skeptical of how much Alachkar could achieve in his lab.
“We didn’t know how long she’d be here because it was the Arab Spring and we didn’t know how long it was going to last,” he explains. “We hoped not long and she’d go back to help rebuild the country. So I didn’t think she’d get much done because of that, but it’s been a real pleasure to see her research bloom.”
There are thought to be about 425,000 pregnant women in Syria, and that’s where Alachkar’s thoughts lie. “I came here, but millions of refugees are not as lucky as I am,” she says. “Some of them are in camps or just stuck on the borders with no food and no shelter.”
Her fear is that the effects of the war will be felt many years after the last bullet is fired.
Studies have shown that children born after and during times of great stress like famine or war are more likely to suffer from mental health issues than children born in better times.
Alachkar points to Europeans who were born during the Second World War in territories occupied by the Germans. She says they have much higher rates of psychiatric disorders and fears that the same will be true for Syria.
“I think that the Syrian war will have an effect for the next 100 years,” she says.
Alachkar is trying to understand exactly what happens in the brains of babies and fetuses during stressful situations that could be responsible for the development of mental health problems in later life.
For this, she experiments with pregnant mice. “I manipulated their nutrition during pregnancy and I was able to induce symptoms in their offspring that are similar to schizophrenia and autism,” she explains. “It’s like I created war for the mice.”
A trace of guilt creeps into her voice as she describes her experiments, but she hopes the benefits could help those suffering from mental health problems, not least Syria’s future generations.
Hamzeh says that her work is highly important. “The findings of this research ring alarm bells about the hidden and life-long lasting impacts of wars not only on millions of children, but also the ones yet to be born.”
The schizophrenia and autism that she created in mice appeared permanent at first. She tested them at one month, two months and three months old, and the symptoms remained. “We found changes in the genes that are really important for cognitive functioning and memory,” she says. “I also found changes in the brain.”
The next step was to find a way to reverse the symptoms with medical intervention. By supplying the newborn mice with anti-psychotic drugs, she was able to undo 70 percent of the symptoms.
“We’re preparing further research on this because we seek to reach 100 percent,” she says. “We’re also trying to prevent it. We want to see if we can give the mother something in famine conditions that prevents the symptoms from developing in their children when they grow up.”
To do this, Alachkar says she needs to understand the mechanisms in the brain that cause the symptoms, which is what her research aims are focused on at the moment.
“The strength of her research is to show the importance of prenatal treatment on the outcome of mental disorders,” says Civelli, “and that means we can look at getting things done.”
But there’s an all-too-familiar problem: funding. After the first year of working in California, the university had to pay the whole scholarship. “They’ve done that for a few years now, but things are less certain,” explains Civelli. “They say they can’t keep doing it.”