Researcher profile: Dan Larhammar

Important to strengthen critical thinking

Committed teacher, brain scientist and pseudoscience opponent... Dan Larhammar has several different roles. As the new chair (and President) of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, he has relatively little time for teaching, but his efforts to strengthen the role of science and basic research in Sweden are continuing.

Dan Larhammar, Professor of Molecular Cell Biology, is a well-known advocate of source criticism and fact-based knowledge. As chair of the Swedish Sceptics’ Association, he has shattered many myths that are spread in the name of science. A member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences since 2007, he has been its third Vice President since 2015 and is to assume the role of President (chair) in July.

“It’s a wonderful honour to be entrusted with this position, and it’s going to be enormously interesting and exciting to tackle the assignment.”

The Academy of Sciences is perhaps best known for its research awards, including the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry, and the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Another important part of the Academy’s activities is the dialogue between researchers and politicians, referred to as ‘science for policy’ and ‘policy for science’.

“Science for policy is about providing research documentation for decision makers in society, politicians and others. The idea is to help them find the best possible, most reliable basis. And ‘policy for science’ is about encouraging politicians to make decisions that strengthen research. What the Academy of Sciences works for, and constantly reminds us, is the long-term perspective in particular,” Larhammar says.

“Research, and especially basic research, takes time. And it’s impossible to say in advance what its beneficial aspects will be. You have to work open-mindedly, but experience shows the amazing improvements in society that have come from pure basic research – ranging from antibiotics to the Internet.”

On top of all this, the Academy of Sciences seeks to be a meeting place, and disseminate knowledge through symposia, seminars and lectures. Larhammar has been on the Academy’s Education Committee for nine years.

Being himself a highly committed teacher, he teaches on both the Medicine and Biomedicine Programmes, is the course director for three courses and also Director of Studies. Now he is going to have to cut down on the teaching, but will not stop altogether.

“Some parts of the teaching are tremendously rewarding. Others aren’t – correcting 800 exam answers in a fortnight, for example,” he says with a laugh.

“It’s something special when you can stimulate students to do their own critical thinking. It’s becoming increasingly important in today’s society, with so much ‘fake news’ and so many ‘alternative facts’. You have to go to the sources and check the original data.”

Here, researchers have a key part to play, since they know which sources are reliable and which need to be checked extra carefully. Today, there are many open access journals, where researchers pay to get published. There are more reasons than ever to be sceptical of what is published in some journals, Larhammar suggests.

“There may be many non-research reasons why articles are published in academic journals, other than obtaining personal qualifications, and companies wanting to release certain results – ideological beliefs and prestige, for instance. Remarkable results and conclusions have to be checked with particular thoroughness.”

One forum for this is the Swedish Sceptics’ Association, chaired by Larhammar in 1998–2004. The Association, which issues a magazine in which people with expert knowledge analyse pseudoscience, has been a forerunner of today’s revelations of troll factories and fake news.

The purpose is to help people get the right information and protect themselves against exaggerated marketing and ideologically based claims.

“Pseudoscience is spread by companies and various ideological groups in politics and religion. Some parts of alternative medicine can also be called ‘ideological movements’, with closed Facebook groups propagating certain treatment methods,” Larhammar says.

As a neurobiologist, he is interested in the psychological mechanisms that allow people to be fooled and drawn into such movements, but they are not something he is personally researching.

Instead, genetics of the brain – including, for example, regulation of hunger and satiety – has been his research area for many years. His research team have, for instance, found a genetic variation in humans that correlates with body weight and BMI. At the same time, at the molecular level, they are studying the receptors that signal hunger and satiety, to make it possible to develop appropriate drugs in the long run.

Larhammar has also researched how the appetite-regulating system has emerged in the course of evolution. This led him onto a new track: the inception of colour vision during evolution.

Studies show that colour vision arose just before the vertebrates appeared. Then the entire genome doubled twice and new gene copies came into being.

“That was a decisive step in vertebrate evolution, and certainly explains some of the vertebrates’ successes. The fact that we have a large, advanced nervous system and our extreme mobility thanks to our advanced musculoskeletal system have undoubtedly contributed to the evolutionary successes. Vertebrates were able to seek food very actively, and also evade dangers.”

The next major research challenge is to study the evolution of learning and long-term memory.

“How the memory works is one of the biggest enigmas of science. My group are working to find out when the components of this apparatus arose, by comparing various animal species. We’re also looking for what may be unique for mammals and quadrupeds.”

Larhammar’s route into research was fairly straight. By the time he applied and was admitted to the MSc Pharmacy Programme in the 1970s, he was already set on becoming a biomedical researcher.

As a PhD student researching transplantation antigens, which are involved in the immune system, he was one of the first people to sequence DNA using the new DNA techniques.

“It was a hugely exciting time, when these new methods were coming along and completely revolutionising research. During my postgraduate studies, I also came into contact with neurobiology and realised that the brain’s complicated functions could be studied with the new methods.”

So he switched fields to neurobiology and connected with cutting-edge research as a guest researcher in the US, at a neurobiological institute in La Jolla, San Diego, in the late 1980s. And so his career continued. Today, researchers know much more about the brain, such as the fact that it has many more neurotransmitters and receptors than people believed before the molecular genetics revolution. But much still remains to be explored in mental health, which causes so much sick leave in Sweden.

“There’s massive suffering, often long-term, and a major national economic loss. Research on the brain is severely underfunded, but boosting our knowledge about it, so as to be able to mitigate the effects of brain diseases, would be a very good investment,” Larhammar says.

Annica Hulth

Facts: Dan Larhammar

Current news: New chair (and President) of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences since 1 July 2018.
Title: Professor of Molecular Cell Biology at Uppsala University’s Department of Neuroscience.
Career in brief: MSc in Pharmacy, 1980; PhD, 1984. Chair of the Swedish Sceptics’ Association, 1998–2004. Awarded the Ingemar Hedenius Prize by the Humanists Sweden association, 2000. Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences since 2007. Received the Pharmacist of the Year award from the Swedish Pharmacists’ Association in 2016.
Leisure interests: Travel, photography and listening to music.
Latest book read: “I always have ten books going at once! The last one I read was Hans Rosling’s Hur jag lärde mig förstå världen (‘How I Learned to Understand the World’). I’m now reading Åsa Wikforss’s book Alternativa fakta: om kunskapen och dess fiender (‘Alternative Facts: Knowledge and its Enemies’), while also reading Emma Frans’s book Larmrapporten (‘Scare Story’) on critical thinking.”
What makes you happy? “There’s a lot to choose from. If I really need to perk myself up, I watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian. You won’t feel low when you watch it: that’s for sure.”
What worries you? “When people spread myths and delusions.”
Hidden talent: “I played the clarinet, bass clarinet and alto saxophone for many years – but that was a long time ago.”