Dr Fiona McLean

Postdoctoral Research Assistant

Systems Medicine, School of Medicine

Portrait photo of Fiona McLean
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Fiona graduated from the University of Dundee in 2012 with a Joint Honours in Biochemistry and Pharmacology. She went on to complete an EASTBIO BBSRC funded PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of Professor Lynda Williams, Dr Fiona Campbell and Dr Rosamund Langston. During her PhD she investigated the impact of a high-fat diet on memory. 

Following her PhD, Fiona moved back to the University of Dundee and took up a postdoctoral research position in the laboratories of Professor Jeremy Lambert and Dr Rosamund Langston. She worked on a collaborative Wellcome Trust drug discovery project with the University of Sussex and Cardiff University which aimed to develop novel compounds to treat cognitive impairment associated with neurodegenerative conditions. 

Fiona is now a postdoctoral research scientist in Professor Michael Ashford’s laboratory working on the IM2PACT project (https://www.imi.europa.eu/projects-results/project-factsheets/im2pact), funded by IMI (Innovative Medicines Initiative), which has over 25 European partners. This project aims to understand the changes that occur to the blood-brain barrier in metabolism-related and neurodegenerative and diseases.



Fiona’s research interests lie in learning and memory with a particular focus on neurodegenerative diseases and the links with metabolic syndrome.

Memory and a high-fat diet

During her PhD she investigated how eating an unhealthy diet may lead to early cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s disease is now one of the biggest global killers, however there is no cure and limited treatments available. It is therefore crucial to understand what can lead to the development of the disease. Obesity and type 2 diabetes, which are driven by a high-fat diet are associated with the development of premature cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. To further elucidate the link between diet and memory, Fiona’s research investigated the effects of a high-fat diet on episodic and associative memory. The findings from her project showed that complex memory types are more vulnerable to impairment by a high-fat diet and that this can happen within days of consuming a high-fat diet. She also revealed that these deficits can be reversed by eating a low-fat diet. Following these findings, Fiona carried out proteomic studies showing that within days a high-fat diet can cause changes to proteins involved in metabolism, the immune system, cell signalling and the cytoskeleton. Further studies using hippocampal cell culture techniques revealed that the cytoskeleton of neurons is compromised by saturated fat however this can be alleviated by the presence of unsaturated fat. 

Cognitive enhancing compounds

Fiona worked as a postdoctoral researcher on a Wellcome Trust funded drug discovery project which aims to develop cognitive enhancing treatments for diseases such as Huntington’s disease. Huntington’s disease is an inherited, neurodegenerative disease which usually presents itself with symptoms of hyperkinesia. However, the earliest signs of the disease are personality changes and memory loss. Fiona worked as a behavioural neuropharmacologist developing cognitive enhancing drugs which target α5-GABAAR subtype in the hippocampus. She utilised disease and non-disease in vivo models and applied a range of behavioural assays and in vivo electrophysiology to evaluate novel compounds which may be used to treat impaired cognitive abilities. This project was in collaboration with Cardiff University and the University of Sussex.

Neurodegeneration, Metabolic Syndrome and the Blood-Brain Barrier

Fiona is currently a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Michael Ashford’s laboratory working on the IM2PACT project (https://www.imi.europa.eu/projects-results/project-factsheets/im2pact), funded by IMI (Innovative Medicines Initiative), which has over 25 European partners. This project aims to advance the understanding of the blood-brain barrier in order to help develop treatments for metabolism-related and neurodegenerative diseases. The blood-brain barrier is a protective shield which separates circulating blood from the brain. This barrier is made up of specialised cells which molecules can move across through diffusion or selective transport. It has been found that the integrity of the blood-brain barrier is compromised in neurodegenerative and metabolic-related diseases and it becomes ‘leaky’. As a result, the movement of molecules across the blood-brain barrier becomes disrupted and less controlled. Alongside collaborators, Fiona is using in vivo models of diabetes and diet-induced obesity to explore how changes that occur in genes and proteins may lead to a ‘leaky’ blood-brain barrier.  Understanding how a loss of blood-brain barrier integrity can be caused by metabolic-related diseases will help not only to understand the development of neurodegenerative diseases, but also how these changes may make it more difficult for medicines to be delivered to the brain to treat these diseases.

Grants and Awards

  • Guarantors of Brain Travel Award, £850, November 2018.
  • George Lawrence Award, University of Dundee, £866, November 2018.
  • BBSRC EASTBIO Doctoral Training Partnership Award, October 2012- October 2016.
  • Grass Foundation Award, Marine Biological Laboratory, $5500, June 2016.
  • Genentech Award, Marine Biological Laboratory, $3574, June 2016.
  • Principal's Excellence Fund, University of Aberdeen, £500, March 2016.
  • British Society for Neuroendocrinology International Conference Travel Grant, £500, November 2014.
  • Experimental Psychology Society Grindley Grant for Conference Attendance, £500, November 2014.
  • British Society for Neuroendocrinology Project Support Grant, £2450, July 2013.


  • Cuthbertson Prize winner, April 2015.
  • Rural and Environmental Science & Analytical Services Main Research Providers PhD Competition 3rd prize, June 2015.
  • Public Engagement Prize-“I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here!”, June 2014. 

Additional Training and Activities 

  • Alzheimer’s Research UK Early Career Representative for the Scotland Research Network, June 2019-current.
  • Neurobiology Course, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, U.S.A, June-July 2016.
  • Scottish Government, three-month secondment to write and develop public health policy, September-December 2014.             


Fiona frequently takes part in public engagement activities including open days, local science festivals, Pecha Kucha events and Bright Club. Previously she took part in the science engagement competition “I’m A Scientist…Get Me Out Of Here!” which she went on to win. With the prize money she made a video about “What is it like to be a scientist?”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIK3fI8Jv_0.

View full research profile and publications

Media availability

I am available for media commentary on my research.

Contact Corporate Communications for media enquiries.

Areas of expertise

  • Alzheimer’s disease