Matilde Leonardi: a scientist for life


Matilde Leonardi: a scientist for life

A scientist who loves life, who is not afraid of death, who studies the impact of disease around the world, who is aware of the importance of interaction with the environment, with a careful eye on disability, rights and health public.


Matilde Leonardi, an excellence for research in Italy

Awarded in the Campidoglio among the 100 Italian excellences for research , Matilde Leonardi specializes in Neurology and Pediatrics, she is neurologist medical director at the Scientific Direction of the IRCCS Foundation Carlo Besta Neurological Institute of Milan where she also directs the Coma Research Center-CRC.

You have worked at the World Health Organization and for years you have been working as a researcher and as a clinician of disability, public health, aging, chronic diseases and work and socio-health policies in Italy and abroad.

She is a partner of national and international research projects , she is a member of the Steering Committee of the Bioethics Center of the Catholic University.

He has numerous assignments for the assessment of disability around the world, on the use of WHO classifications, on the right to care for neurological patients and on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Since 2011 he has been a Corresponding Member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

A scientist with a strong vitality, that she studies the impact of the disease all over the world , that she is aware of the importance of interaction with the environment, that she has an eye for women and, in particular, for little girls.

She tells us “the method” of her success.

How did you experience the award as Italian excellence in research?

The Ministry of Health nominated me and for me it was really a great pride, I went to take the award with my son and I dedicated it to my family.

But I also wanted to share it with colleagues and I started saying it to those with whom I have a closer relationship, but when they reacted with ” Why you? Maybe they were wrong ?” I quit. My friends, however, gave me a very affectionate return. 

It was a recognition higher than what I expected , a great satisfaction, especially taking into account that my research is very particular because it mixes quantitative, qualitative and neuroscience elements . 

I call myself a hippyfor neuroscience and a yappy for social sciences. The sick person must then return to the world , work, make love and I am also interested in this whole part. Sondo, I publish my studies, I win millions of euros for research projects.

Research guides you a little and takes you a little, so “I ended up” exploring chronic diseases and work, I set up a master’s degree in Disability Manager at the Catholic University .

For me, doing research means always advancing what already exists a little further , be it the discovery of a gene, a new tool or guidelines for managers who have people with chronic diseases in the company.

What is the most natural thing for you in a caring relationship?

Taking the hand of a person when he is crying which, in scientific research, means structuring that hand holding giving it a meaning and making it count so that a cure is found.

Pain is scary when yours is the role of doctor, of the one who has to cure : look at pain, look at death, talk about it; we must be aware that we are part of a process where there is life, death, everything. The doctor, even better if he heals but, above all, he must be there.

At times I also had the doubt that I should not study medicine , that all my medical knowledge may not even be of much use.

Perhaps the medical profession has deluded about always having an answer? 

The increase in chronic diseases is completely changing the scientific scenario, the pure biomedical model , albeit one of the greatest advances of man, the one in which the human being is a broken machine, I fix the bolts and make it restart, he showed its limits .

It has worked in surgery, in anesthesia, in infectious diseases , but even in the latter it is already starting to feel short of breath.

The biomedical model fails on what are considered “the silent epidemics of the new millennium”, for example Alzheimer ‘s, of which we seek the origin.

The future presents itself with great hopes regarding agingin which it seems that the word joy is a luxury and a privilege, instead it should be a millennium of joy. We have a lot of good things, new discoveries, but maybe the good news is boring.

What we need today in Western countries is a return to a more “bio-psycho-social” medicine , more aware of man’s interaction with his environment.

If today we live thirty years with the same disease, the doctor must regain a relationship not based on health understood as lack of disease otherwise there is no longer a connection because there is no healing. 

Is being a researcher more difficult?

For me, the woman is absolutely privileged because she can be a mother , which a man cannot do. In the field of research I would not make gender distinctions , if anything between stupid and intelligent .

Equal skills do not seem to me there is disparity , perhaps female researchers are “privileged” compared to other categories because what matters is whether you are able to put together data and come up with a synthesis, have an intuition, which can sometimes arise from knowledge and foresight.

If anything, between men and women, there may be career differences because there is no external support to be able to reconcile work and family. 

How is disability experienced in the world?

In recent years I have been in over sixty countries to observe the political situation of disability and I have seen that the demands are the same everywhere.

Equality strikes me more.

I have a profession that is respected all over the world, a much loved nationality and that makes it easy. For my part, when I travel I try above all to get to know people, enter homes, visit hospitals , eat together with doctors and nurses, understand how the disease is in a single place, how it is experienced and managed.

I start from the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and I look at how they behave with respect to this, I carry out a monitoring and then if I can I speak in favor of women.

What is the relationship between medicine and quality of life?

I also worked a lot on ” vegetative states “, people with the greatest need for environmental facilitators.

In the world of disability they are the extremes. I entered to study this context from an unusual point of view, not starting from the neuroscientific question ” what is consciousness ” but ” how can I improve the care and quality of life ” of these silent patients, looked upon by few, who are not interested in none and who need everything.

I start from the concept that man is not the disease he has but that his problem is expressed in different degrees of severity depending on the environment; the environment can change the state of health and the method to be applied,something that has conditioned my whole life, which I have continuously developed and fielded, concerns the interventions to be done in this interaction.

I represent Besta, an exceptional Neuroscience Institute in the study of the brain through neurophysiology, neuroimaging , genetics, clinic, semeiotics and I think it is natural to take care of them, I can only try to make a contribution to advancement , despite the criticisms that we do not go forward, we do not discover the decisive drug, an idea of ​​biomedicine which, as I said, is out of fashion.

Consciousness, like the brain in general, is as exciting as it is mysteriousbut continuing to study it also on these “niche” patients we can find useful elements for many others. 

A look at public health

I like to be a neurologist in this way: looking at the impact of diseases, the economic impact, the impact of numbers ; how these numbers can and should influence politics and in turn how they can be affected.

Let me clarify with an example: on what is called the global burden of disease , that is a series of articles that analyze all the data in the world and give the trends, I analyzed a period ranging from 1990 to 2019 and given that in the age group 0-4 years all the work campaigns (nutrition, vaccinations, etc …) have ensured that mortality was drastically reduced.

Unfortunately, it is equally clear that mortality in adolescents is severely increaseddue to self-inflicted injuries, traffic accidents, psychiatric disorders including eating disorders. By studying these flows you understand that in politics you have to solicit specific interventions , perhaps on neglected groups, which however raise the health of the entire population.

Looking at health means looking at humanity, setting priorities. There is no health without politics and I often talk to politicians.

Girls and disabilities in the world

If you decide, in a certain place, to work on the weakest , I look at girls with disabilities , who are the priority worldwide, because if you are a child and moreover disabled in some places you are not even a person , and if you are not a person legally you don’t even have to go to school and if you don’t go to school you will always be a slave.

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