Israel's First Arab Woman to Become a Neuroscience Professor Wants to Erase Your Fear

Mouna Maroun’s trajectory as a neuroscientist extends from a Druze village to a postdoc in France and department head in Haifa. She is now developing a treatment to erase the negative emotions that accompany trauma – and also working to open the door to an academic future for young Israeli Arabs

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Mouna Maroun
Mouna Maroun.Credit: Rami Shllush
Yael Belkin
Yael Belkin

Mouna Maroun has a lot to live up to: She’s the first Arab woman in Israel to become a professor of neurobiology and to head a university department in neuroscience. Yet Maroun, 51, says she didn’t know that’s how things would work out.

“I wanted to be a physician. Like every Jewish mother dreams their child will be a doctor, Arab mothers have the same dream,” she relates. “But I wasn’t accepted to medical school, and today I’m grateful for that, because I wouldn’t have been able to fulfill myself the way I am doing today.”

Maroun began by studying psychology at the University of Haifa, she says, “but I didn’t like it. I kept thinking about how I could get out of it without disappointing my parents. But then, in my third year, I joined a research project that worked with rats in a laboratory – and it was love at first sight.”

Maroun is currently studying the neural basis for posttraumatic stress disorder in lab rats; her research focuses on the neurobiology of learning, memory and emotions. She has developed a medical treatment for preventing PTSD, which works by erasing a specific memory of fear and which is administered by injection.

Why do we experience fear?

Maroun: “Fear is important for survival. An animal, for example, doesn’t need to start thinking whether it’s worthwhile to be afraid of a predator cat or not – it is worthwhile! That’s what increases its survivability. The region in the brain where the fear response originates is called the amygdala. It hasn’t changed all that much in evolutionary terms, but it’s important for our survival. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex, which developed in humans far more than it did in animals, is the region that enables us to understand the emotions of the Other, and it is also responsible for inhibiting the amygdala and controlling the fear response.”

What happens in cases of trauma?

“My research deals with the way the brain copes with traumas. The focus is on the interaction between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. In a trauma event, we undergo something negative, but it’s impossible to be immersed in that all the time, because we need to get on with life. The question is what goes wrong in the interaction between the cortex and the amygdala, which causes that fear to remain present in us over time.

“Today, this subject is being studied on animals. We are examining how it’s possible to lower the contribution of the amygdala and heighten that of the prefrontal cortex. We know that in PTSD, there is over-involvement of the amygdala and under-involvement of the latter. We have shown that there is a molecule, called AKT, which if injected into the brain can erase the fears associated with the memory [of the trauma] and only them. Still, we have not tried it on humans, only on animals.”

How does the treatment act on the brain?

“The treatment does not erase the memory in the sense of rendering it nonexistent. If we forget things that are critical for survival, we downgrade our ability to cope. For example, you can warn a child for hours not to go near a hot stove, but in the end he will approach it out of curiosity, experience a burning sensation and in that way he learns not to do that again. So that is a memory we don’t want to erase, because it teaches us – it is survival-oriented. What we want is for the reactions that accompany the trauma, those that immobilize us, to disappear. That’s the difference between the memory of the trauma and the reaction to the trauma, to the emotion that is added to it. Trauma victims are unable to return to their regular lives: Fear simply shuts down the whole system.”

Elementary school kids in Kafr Qasem study over Zoom.

How long after the moment of exposure to the trauma is it possible to use the treatment?

“There is a phenomenon in neurobiology known as memory reconsolidation, in which whenever a memory arises anew, each time, a window of time is created during which it can be influenced. The moment the memory of the trauma arises, it is possible either to strengthen it or reduce it, and thus to influence the memory of the traumatic event even if time has passed since the event occurred. That said, we do not yet know for how long the treatment is effective.”

Is there a difference in traumas between men and women?

“We know that more women than men suffer from anxiety disorders. Beyond that, girls are said to be more emotionally mature than boys their age, and we found research evidence for that in the mechanisms that cope with anxiety disorders. We compared young male and female animals, before sexual maturity, and we found that the mechanism that copes with fear in the young female – the involvement of the prefrontal cortex and the mechanisms that mediate fear reduction – resembles the mechanism that can be found in a mature male. In contrast, in the young male the mechanism simply does not exist; its prefrontal cortex is not considered to be mature.”

Does that mean that children process trauma differently than adults?

“The prefrontal cortex continues to develop in humans until the age of 20; we found that the mechanisms that mediate fear learning in young animals differ from those in mature animals. Our conclusion is that it’s not possible to treat a child with PTSD the way an adult is treated.”

How have the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying mental stress affected the brain?

“The coronavirus put us in a situation of helplessness. When the brain enters a state of lack of control, it causes situations that simulate stress. I think that children are the population group that was most affected by the pandemic. They suffered the greatest damage in the past year: They had minimal social interaction, they did their learning via Zoom, they were glued to screens. I believe that in the future we will see impairment of their social abilities as well as emotional problems. It’s not clear how they will regulate their emotions and how they will deal with social situations.

“The crisis has also caused a problem of obesity, which affects the brain in both children and adults. One of the things that influence development of the brain in children is high-fat food. We can see that the so-called fat brain [a predominantly psychological phenomenon] precedes the fat body – even before the visible signs of obesity, such as higher weight or cholesterol and glucose levels. One can see that the brain is the first organ to be affected: A reaction of stress is created that simulates the reaction during a trauma, and the obese youngsters have more fears.

“If we give an animal unhealthful food to eat for a week, it may not be sufficient to increase its weight or raise its cholesterol level, but we see that things start to go awry in the brain. Moreover, if we restore the animal’s regular food and examine it after a month, we find that a high percentage of the animals are still adversely affected. The implication is that all the junk that children are fed is liable to cause damage that might manifest itself in the future.”

Isfiya, Maroun’s hometown. Credit: Ori

Isfiya to Paris and back

That first research study with the lab rats as an undergraduate psychology student was what hooked Maroun. After obtaining a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in neurobiology at the University of Haifa, she did a postdoc at the University of Paris, and on her return joined the faculty of the Sagol Department of Neurobiology at the university in Haifa in 2001, later becoming department head. Since then the university has become her second home – but her first home remains Isfiya, the Druze-majority village on Mount Carmel where she grew up.

“I grew up in a home where there was a great deal of love. We were four girls, and our parents didn’t have much to give us materially, but there was plenty of love. I have memories of my father sitting with us while we were studying, or of the bench in the church that was reserved for my family. I got to where I am thanks to my parents. They didn’t complete the fourth grade, but they understand the power of learning, of higher education, and that has stayed with me all my life.”

Each of her identities has a special significance for her, she says, and that’s “part of the complexity I live in. I am a minority within a minority, it’s a dot within the circles that you need a magnifying glass to see – statistically, I effectively don’t exist. But I live in the State of Israel, so I am an Israeli; within that circle I am an Arab; within the circle of the Arabs I am a Christian; within the circle of the Christians I am a Maronite; and within that, I am a woman. That complexity is a huge advantage because it allows me to move from one circle to another and to understand who is above me [in more privileged circles in Israel]. My ability to maneuver between all these identities is what makes it possible for me to understand the Other, to be in the Other’s place and to try to create a dialogue with all these circles.

“If you’re part of the majority, you don’t need to dialogue with others, but being part of the minority, and in the smallest and least privileged dot creates the ability and the possibility to engage in give and take with all the other circles.”

What sorts of reactions do you get from Arab society regarding your academic career?

“One part likes [what I’ve done] and is very congratulatory, but another part tries to ignore me – I don’t sit well with them. I am the chairwoman of the Council for Higher Education’s steering committee that deals with giving the Arab population access to higher education, yet not one politician from Arab society has called me – which continues to astonish me. I am starting my fifth year in that capacity, but there is no interest or encouragement. I get a lot of support and love from people, but not from those who have the power and who need to be involved.”

How do you explain that?

“Maybe it’s because of the multiple identities I live in. But to me it shows that the Arab population can move forward in higher education even without politics. I try to open doors for students and other Arab academics – that’s the greatest thing I do. I obtained scholarships for Arab students from my department, which makes possible a future generation of scientists. I think that my being in academia, along with others, can make me a role model for young Arabs and give them hope that they can get there, too. For them it will be easier, because they are already the second generation of higher education in Arab society – not like I am, from the first generation.”

How do children in Arab society respond to you?

“I really enjoy giving talks to the general public and to children in particular. A teacher wrote to tell me that he asked a pupil what she wanted to be when she grows up, and she said, ‘To be like Mouna Maroun.’ When I hear that there’s a girl who wants to be like that, it’s very moving.

“When I speak with children, I tell them that I too didn’t really succeed in school in some ways. No one in the high school I attended remembers me, because for a teacher to remember a student they have to be outstanding or mischievous, and I wasn’t either. I was in the middle, like all the mediocre students. That’s the message I can pass on to the children: I too was not outstanding, but if you have a dream you can make it happen. After all, how many outstanding children are there? Not many. So the outstanding ones will make it, but I want the mediocre ones, like I was, to realize that they can succeed, too. For them to have a dream and also to know that they can succeed.”

Arab women in East Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

‘Arabs flocking to campuses’

Maroun was appointed to the Council of Higher Education’s planning and budgeting committee in 2017, and after her first three years her term was extended for another three. Despite being cold-shouldered by Arab politicians, she is adamant about continuing to pave the way to higher education for young members of Arab society. “I’ve received many gifts in life, but if there’s one thing I am truly thankful for it’s the opportunity serve on the planning and steering committee and to see how the higher education system can be a ladder to equal opportunities. It’s a springboard – because of my membership on the committee, I am well known. It gave me an entry ticket to a great many places whose help I can draw on. An example is the planning and steering committee’s project to make higher education accessible to the Arab society. It’s a holistic program, which accompanies young Arabs from high school and throughout their university or college studies.

“The goal is for us to see more Arab students being integrated, not only in academic studies, but also in the job market and in the Israeli economy. Arabs are flocking to the campuses – today it’s impossible to find a campus without Arabs – in the humanities and social sciences, and also in engineering and computer science. The Arab community is taking great strides toward higher education and toward true integration. Today, high-tech firms and others want them, because diversity is a key to excellence: If a company wants to be excellent, it has to employ women, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), Ethiopians and Arabs.”

What barriers does Arab society face on the way to academia?

“I think the Education Ministry needs to place greater focus [in the Arab education system] on learning Hebrew and on life skills. That isn’t done sufficiently, and everything we’re doing in the higher education system is correcting the damage that’s done in the [primary and secondary] systems. Young Arabs who enter university don’t know Hebrew, at least not at a level that makes it possible for them to be students. The Arab students are much younger than their Jewish counterparts, who enter university after army service, whereas the Arab students have just left home and have less life experience. Arabs and Jews are in the same classes, and there’s a disparity there that needs to be bridged.

“It may be worthwhile for young Arabs to invest a year after high school in study and work, in order to be better prepared for student life. There’s no urgent reason to rush into studies at the age of 17 or 18. In addition, I would like to see more Arab lecturers in the fields of technology and the sciences. There’s still a long way to go, but as I see it, the ladder to equality is climbed through the higher education system.”

Arab society isn’t the only community that isn’t adequately prepared for higher education. Haredi society gets no core learning at all. Who suffers from greater discrimination, the Haredim or the Arabs?

“I think the Haredim suffer more, and you can see a lot more Arab students on campuses today. If in the past, there were two in a class, now they constitute a high percentage. Because the Haredim are not really succeeding in integrating into the higher education system. The Education Ministry doesn’t need to invest more in Arab society, because it already has core studies – they do matriculation exams in mathematics and English at the highest level. All that’s missing is Hebrew. The Haredim don’t study math and English and don’t really learn Hebrew. You can tell in a second that a person is a Haredi just by their language – their ability to express themselves in Hebrew isn’t up to the university standard.”

What do you think about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s shift, suddenly turning to the Arab population in order to save himself politically. Ironic, no?

“I think that just as Arabs are integrating into higher education, I’d like to see them do the same in politics and industry. As a citizen in the State of Israel, I want to see myself involved in both political and academic activity. I want to share in decision-making. The Arab population suffers from great neglect, but we are part of this society. The Israeli academic world gave me an opportunity to develop and the ability to set policy and influence my society – the young members of the Arab community – and I would like to see a situation of equal opportunity not only for Arabs but also for women. Arabs are 21 percent of the population, but women are 50 percent, and I want to see an opportunity for true equality at all levels, in academic leadership and state leadership alike.

“I am very proud of [Labor leader] Merav Michaeli – in my eyes, she is an example of feminine leadership – and I would like to see more women leaders, including in academia.”

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