Imagine this: you can take a look inside people’s brains. Healthy people, but also people suffering from hallucinations. What will you see in that case? Stijn Michielse (33) researches this mind-bending question.

Hallucinations, voices inside your head, and other psychotic disorders. They are the result of the brain short-circuiting. Investigator Stijn likes to occupy himself with it. He explains: ‘The outside of our brain, the cerebral cortex, consists of a grey matter. That part is responsible for important functions such as moving, seeing and talking. The inside of our brains consists of white matter. It ensures all functions communicate correctly with each other. If there’s a disturbance in the white matter it can happen you see or hear things that aren’t really there.

Extraordinary MRI-research

Stijn is currently involved in research at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, where he previously did an internship in 2009. Ever since he did the internship he became fascinated by MRI-research into brain connectivity. ‘I’m looking at structural and functional MRI-data of healthy people varying in age from 20 to 80. This data gives information about the brain in a resting state, providing us an image of the brain in default mode. This way we’re working on getting more insight into how the brains’ regions work together when they are functioning properly. Hopefully we can compare that data later with people whose brains are ‘short-circuiting’, for example because of a psychotic disorder, or possible other mental disorders such as dementia.

I’m building a virtual bridge

‘I see myself as a “bridge builder” between MRI and psychiatry. Furthermore I’m building a virtual bridge between Maastricht and Edmonton. Each university has their own qualities and they can learn from each other. U of A has a lot of biomedical knowledge and the UM a lot of medical knowledge about the application of MRI. I am an ambassador of sorts, stimulating this collaboration,’ Stijn tells. His project yields a lot for him personally as well. ‘The unique collaboration with experts is amazing. I can learn here, expand my network and publish articles. Edmonton is a large city, where you can experience many different things: from megamalls (with indoor rollercoasters) and the Rocky Mountains to ice hockey and ice castles. Guaranteed beautiful experiences and personal growth!’

A piece of the puzzle

Still, to Stijn it’s especially important to contribute to society. ‘I’m solving a piece of the big puzzle. A lot is known already about the brain’s white and grey matter, but we’re only at the beginning! I hope my project will improve the insight into brain disorders. Also: how do people – and our brains – grow older healthily? This project has been made possible thanks to the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), of which the UM is a member. Prof. Dr. Martin Paul, president of Maastricht University, is also the current chairman. You can imagine I’m very happy and grateful to have received the WUN Research Mobility Program grant through the University Fund Limburg/SWOL.’

Stijn and Maastricht University

After his bachelor Biometrics, Stijn worked as a research assistant at the Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology. Then he obtained his Research Master in Health Sciences, after which he returned to the Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology. He completed his Ph.D. with his thesis ‘Road work ahead: Cerebral pathways mediating psychological mechanisms underlying the psychosis spectrum’ in October 2018. Once Stijn has returned from Canada he will work as a postdoctoral researcher at the MUMC+’s Neurosurgery department.