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Neurological Foundation Announces Recipients

Neurological Foundation Announces Recipients of December 2008 Grant Round

The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand awarded $1,014, 902 in research grants, and scholarships in its December 2008 funding round. Successful projects in this latest round included studies into detecting infant brain injury caused by congenital heart defects, stem cell treatment for Huntington’s disease, a potential stroke treatment using antibodies, and an online program to ease fatigue for people with multiple sclerosis. This brings the Neurological Foundation funding for 2008 to more than $1.6 million.

Jesse Jacobsen from the University of Auckland is the recipient of the Foundation’s Philip Wrightson Post-doctoral Fellowship. She receives a grant of $135,000 to continue her research into Huntington’s disease at Harvard Medical School in the United States.

Ms Jacobsen was the 2007 recipient of the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year Award for her work on Huntington’s disease and she will be working in the laboratory of Professor Marcy MacDonald at Harvard’s Centre for Human Genetic Research.

Two Miller Scholarships for study toward a PhD were awarded.

Paul Drury from the University of Auckland’s Department of Physiology received a grant of $96,520 to study techniques to detect brain injury in babies born with congenital heart disease.

Owen Jones, from the University of Otago’s Department of Psychology received a grant of $98,059 to study the function of nerve cell connections in brain injury and repair.

Executive director Mr Max Ritiche said that it was pleasing that Foundation had maintained its funding levels despite the difficult economic times.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this without the support of the many New Zealanders who want to see the end of neurological disease. However, neuroscience funding still lags behind many other areas of research despite brain disorders carrying the greatest disease burden. More investment has to be made in this area if we are to cope with the health challenges of our ageing population.”

Miller Scholarships

For students who have already completed their undergraduate degree and a Masters degree to allow them to undertake a PhD course at a New Zealand university.

Identifying brain injury in infants with congenital heart disease

Paul Drury

Department of Physiology

University of Auckland

$96,520

Severe congenital heart disease affects around 8/1000 live births. Although most congenital heart defects are corrected in infancy, brain damage remains a concern. How this injury occurs is unclear and MRI studies show that brain damage occurs before and after surgery. However, imaging studies cannot identify milder brain injury; or identify damage quickly at a time when treatment is still possible. For example, many studies have shown that infants with no detectable brain damage on MRI scans can perform poorly at school, with poor eye-hand coordination, and speech and behavioural problems.

This project will develop techniques to identify brain damage at a time when treatment is still possible by using a new technique called near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to measure how much oxygen the brain is getting and how much it is using, and another technique, electroencephalography (EEG), that measures brain activity.

Metaplastic mechanisms of ischemic preconditioning

Owen Jones

Department of Psychology

University of Otago

$98,059

Learning and memory involves changes in the connections - synapses - between nerve cells in the brain. Damage to these connections is a characteristic of many neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. Using electrophysiological and imaging techniques, the researchers will investigate if nerve cells have the ability to control the changes in these connections and prevent the changes from escalating. They will study whether this ability protects brain cells against damage that occurs after such as stroke or brain disease. Understanding how these processes work could help the development of treatments for many common neurological disorders.

Philip Wrightson Fellowship

For researchers who have completed a PhD and wish to develop their research further. This work can be undertaken at either New Zealand or overseas universities or hospitals.

Stem cell production and characterization of a sheep model of Huntington’s disease

Dr Jessie Jacobsen

Department of Radiology with Anatomy

University of Auckland

Harvard Medical School

Centre for Human Genetic Research

$135,000

Huntington’s disease (HD) is a fatal inherited neurodegenerative disorder caused by a mutation in the huntingtin gene. The new transgenic sheep model of HD developed at the University of Auckland provides a unique model to study the effects of the human HD mutation. In order to develop the model for use in clinical trials it is necessary to identify and describe the specific affects of the HD gene in various brain cell types by using the latest molecular biological techniques. Identification of cellular changes will help identify early markers and new treatments for this tragic disorder.

Project Grants

Characterisation of neurogenesis in the Huntington’s Disease rat transgenic model

Dr Ailsa McGregor, Assoc Prof Bronwen Connor

Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology

University of Auckland

$142,442

Identifying new therapies for the treatment of neurodegenerative disease like Huntington’s disease (HD) depends on a clear understanding of what causes the disease. This study will use a clinically relevant genetic rat model of HD to investigate the capacity of the adult brain to form new replacement brain cells (neurogenesis) and “repair” itself. Establishing the genetic rat model of HD in will also allow the exciting opportunity to investigate the long-term effects of treatment strategies providing an invaluable experimental tool to further HD research.

Can human anti- NMDA-NR1 antibodies limit damage from stroke?

Dr Maggie Kalev-Zylinska, Dr Ailsa McGregor, Prof Alan Barber, Dr Deborah Young, Assoc Prof Bronwen Connor

Department of Molecular Medicine & Pathology

The University of Auckland

$131,861

Research has shown that the immune system can safely and effectively assist recovery of the damaged central nervous system. Earlier work by this group has found that a particular type of antibody is present in patients after a stroke, and in some healthy people. Furthermore, similar antibodies limited stroke injury when induced when animals by vaccination. These antibodies could be a natural mechanism of protection against brain attacks.

This research will investigate how these antibodies bind to brain cells and what processes they trigger. The main aim is to explore if these antibodies could be a natural mechanism of protection against brain attacks. Specifically, a brain protein called NR1 is being tested as a potential target for protective antibody responses. This work will help determine if boosting anti-NR1 antibody levels by vaccination could reduce impact of stroke on the brain.

Functional roles for melanocortin receptor accessory protein in the brain

Dr Kathleen Mountjoy, Dr Deborah Young

University of Auckland

Department of Physiology

$138,387

Brain diseases such as stroke lead to brain injury and can result in permanent, debilitating damage. Drugs that reduce the damage to brain cells and promote the growth of new cells could lessen the effects of such brain injuries. Elements of the brain melanocortin system have been shown to protect the brain from injury through various mechanisms, making this system an attractive target for the development of new stroke therapies. This study will investigate the role of a melanocortin receptor accessory protein, MRAPα, as its function is currently unknown. Advancing knowledge about melanocortin biology will not only provide potential new drug targets for stroke but also other neurological diseases including seizures, hemorrhagic shock, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Factors influencing older listeners’ comprehension of disordered speech associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Dr Megan McAuliffe, Dr Catherine Moran, Prof Tim Anderson

Department of Communication Disorders, University of Canterbury

Christchurch

$62,625

Slurred and distorted speech (dysarthria) is a common problem with brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and stroke. It is usually found in older people and diminishes their quality of life. To date, speech rehabilitation research has tended to use young adult listeners rather than the older adults who are more likely to interact with the people with dysarthria. This study will determine the ability of older individuals to understand their speech, and if this affected by age and hearing loss. The researchers will also investigate if speech therapy improves comprehension. This research will allow the development of new speech rehabilitation techniques benefiting older partners of people with dysarthria.

Th2 regulation of macrophages and microglia during experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis

Dr Anne La Flamme, Dr Diane Kenwright, MsSara Mirmoeini

School of Biological Sciences

Victoria, University of Wellington

$167,488


Multiple sclerosis is a brain disorder in which the body's own immune system attacks and damages the insulating substance called myelin which surrounds nerve cells in the brain.

Special immune cells, called T cells are responsible for the immune system targeting of nerves However, another cell type – macrophages - also play a role by allowing inflammatory cells into the central nervous system (CNS). Previous studies have found that treatments that alter a macrophage’s state of activation can prevent CNS inflammation and disease. This project will determine the pathway by which several macrophage-altering treatments prevent disease. Identification of disease-inhibiting pathways may uncover much-needed new therapeutic targets to inhibit or reduce the severity of MS.

Small Projects

Targeting a common pathway in neurodegeneration

Assoc Prof Louise Nicholson, Prof Colin Green,

Department of Anatomy with Radiology

The University of Auckland

$9750

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder typified by the loss of dopamine neurons in a brain region called the substantia nigra, and also by a profound cell loss in another brain area called the locus coeruleus.

This study will investigate the role of gap junctions, which are a type of connection that allow chemicals and proteins to move between cells. Gap junctions are known to be involved in many inflammatory conditions and in the spread of secondary damage in the brain. If gap junctions are found to play an active role in chronic brain inflammation, regulation of the process may offer a potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

A New Zealand pilot study of a web based interactive self-management programme for the treatment of multiple sclerosis fatigue.

Dr Kirsten Van Kessel, Dr Trecia Wouldes, Prof Rona Moss-Morris

Department of Psychological Medicine

University of Auckland

$10,000

Fatigue is a common, distressing and disabling symptom associated with multiple sclerosis (MS). Individual cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for fatigue in MS has been shown to be very effective, yet is limited by resources and access. A previous study showed that an online CBT course together with minimal therapist time can be as effective as CBT where people meet with a therapist for regular sessions. An internet-based version of a CBT package study is under development at the University of Southampton. This project will launch a small pilot internet-based program in New Zealand, which will contribute to the design of a larger trial.

Summer Studentships

Quantifying abnormal EEG activity after paediatric surgery

Paul Drury

Department of Physiology,

University of Auckland

$4000

Severe congenital heart disease affects around 8/1000 live births. Although most congenital heart defects are corrected in infancy, brain damage remains a concern. How this injury occurs is unclear and MRI studies show that brain damage occurs before and after surgery. However, imaging studies cannot identify milder brain injury; or identify damage quickly at a time when treatment is still possible. For example, many studies have shown that infants with no detectable brain damage on MRI scans can perform poorly at school, with poor eye-hand coordination, and speech and behavioural problems.

This project will develop techniques to identify brain damage at a time when treatment is still possible using electroencephalography (EEG), that measures brain activity.

The many roles of FezF2

Sarah Parker

Department of Biochemistry

University of Otago

$4000

Spinal cord damage or disorders such as motor neuron disease cause loss of neurons in the cortical spinal motor tract, a group of cells that project from the brain to the spinal cord. Recent studies have identified several factors critical for the development and health of these cells, however little is known about how these proteins function. This study aims to identify how one such protein, FezF2, influences the development of cortical spinal motor neurons, perhaps providing new targets for the treatment of motor neuron disease.


Fact Sheet

The Neurological Foundation is a charitable trust that raises money for neurological research in New Zealand. Each year it awards more than $1.6 million in grants to New Zealand’s neuroscientists and is the largest non-governmental provider of neurological research funding.

The Foundation receives no government assistance and is almost totally funded by the generosity of individual New Zealanders, with more than 98 per cent of contributions coming from donations and bequests.

The funds are capitalised and the interest used to fund research grants. This system provides ongoing funding for career scientists and long-term research projects. All grant applications are internationally peer-reviewed to ensure only high-quality research is funded.

Since its inception, the Foundation has funded hundreds of projects and currently supports more than 40 research projects at tertiary institutions throughout the country.

This unique dedicated funding body has helped New Zealand produce world-class neuroscientists and research. It also uses the combined expertise and detailed knowledge of this group to help keep the public informed of the advances made in neurological disorder prevention and cures.

A full list of research projects is available on its website. www.neurological.org.nz

ENDS


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