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Neurological Foundation Announces Grant Round Recipients

PRESS RELEASE
For immediate release: 5 December 2012


Neurological Foundation Announces
December 2012 Grant Round Recipients
Over $40 million committed to neurological research in 40 years

The Neurological Foundation announced today that funding of nearly $1 million for neurological research and educational scholarships has been approved in its December 2012 grant round. This brings the total funding committed to neurological research in New Zealand to over $40 million since the Foundation’s first grants were allocated in 1972. The Neurological Foundation is the primary non-government sponsor of neurological research in New Zealand.

Neurological Foundation Executive Director Max Ritchie says “This grant round showcases the breadth of world-class neurological research being carried out at universities, research institutions and hospitals across New Zealand. It’s exciting for us to be able to sponsor so much innovative, high-quality research across such diverse and important areas of neurological disease. Equally pleasing is the high number of young investigators applying for fellowship and scholarship grants in this round. The Foundation has supported career neuroscientists for 40 years this year, so it is vital that we continue to nurture the talents of emerging scientists who have a passion for neuroscience.”

One of these budding scientists is Rebecca Pearman who has been awarded a Neurological Foundation Postgraduate Scholarship in this grant round. Ms Pearman will undertake her PhD study in the University of Auckland laboratory of New Zealand’s leading stem cell researcher, Associate Professor Bronwen Connor. Ms Pearman’s research will use a breakthrough technique recently advanced by Associate Professor Connor to develop a cell model of Parkinson’s disease (PD) by reprogramming skin cells from patients with PD directly into immature neurons and then to mature dopamine cells. This model will allow for future studies to investigate the underlying pathological processes that lead to the development of PD and to screen for disease-modifying drugs. For information about Associate Professor Bronwen Connor’s recent research breakthrough click here: http://www.fmhs.auckland.ac.nz/faculty/newsandevents/news_details.aspx?Id=955

The University of Otago’s Professor Cliff Abraham has been awarded a grant of over $200,000 to further his world-leading Alzheimer’s disease research. Understanding the processes involved in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s is critical in order to identify targets for drug therapies. Professor Abraham’s study will investigate the role of astrocytes, a non-neuronal brain cell, in controlling memory-related changes in the brain, and whether this regulation is impaired in a laboratory model of Alzheimer’s disease. Understanding this process may help to identify new targets for drug interventions to rescue impaired memory and cognition.

In this round, the Neurological Foundation awarded eight project grants, two Neurological Foundation Postgraduate Scholarships, the Neurological Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship and five travel grants. The total funding granted in this round is $976,947. Projects granted funding include brain stimulation to improve recovery after stroke, the processes involved in autism, assessing language in brain tumour patients, testing for Alzheimer’s disease in the eye, brain stimulation for the treatment of chronic pain, and the development of a new sensor device for the management of hydrocephalus.

The Neurological Foundation is an independent body and charitable trust and its funding has facilitated many of New Zealand’s top neuroscientists’ pioneering breakthroughs. Without the ongoing support of individual New Zealanders, the Foundation could not commit to progressing research to the high level that it does. The Neurological Foundation receives no government funding.


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Neurological Foundation research approved December 2012

Research grants totalling $976,947 were approved by the Neurological Foundation Council on 30 November 2012.

NEUROLOGICAL FOUNDATION POSTGRADUATE SCHOLARSHIPS

Human cell modelling of Parkinson’s disease by direct reprogramming

Rebecca Pearman
Department of Pharmacology
University of Auckland

$102,039

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a movement disorder caused by the progressive loss of a specific neural pathway, resulting in reduced levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine in the brain. While the motor symptoms of PD can be treated in some patients with a drug that replaces the lost dopamine, there is no treatment to slow or halt the progression of neuronal loss. This is largely because scientists do not fully understand the cellular changes in PD that cause neuronal death. Ms Pearman’s research aims to develop a cell model of PD which can be used to understand these processes by reprogramming skin cells from patients with PD into immature neurons and then to mature dopamine cells. This model will allow for future studies to investigate the underlying pathological processes that lead to the development of PD and to screen for disease-modifying drugs.

Modulating interhemispheric inhibition to improve functional recovery after stroke

Laura Boddington
Department of Anatomy
University of Otago

$84,000

Stroke affects approximately 20 New Zealanders each day and is the leading cause of adult disability in the developed world. A key objective of post-stroke rehabilitation is the recovery of movement. Recent Neurological Foundation-funded research using Theta Burst Stimulation (low voltage electrical stimulation) has shown promise as a therapy for stroke and suggests that stimulating the brain with its own natural ‘theta’ rhythms can enhance rehabilitation and recovery after a stroke. Ms Boddington’s research will assess the effects of theta-like stimulation on single brain cells in the control of movement areas of the brain after stroke. It will also determine the most effective timing for the application of stimulation after stroke onset to maximise functional improvement.

NEUROLOGICAL FOUNDATION POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWSHIP

The synaptic basis of autism

Dr Charlotte Thynne
Department of Physiology
University of Auckland

$159,210

Autism is a developmental disorder characterised by deficits in language, social interaction and communication. The cause of autism is unknown and no effective treatments have been developed. Dr Thynne’s research aims to determine if autism may result from changes in the interactions between proteins at synapses in the brain, which alters how these synapses function. (Synapses are connections between neurons through which information flows from one neuron to another). In collaboration with scientists at Stanford University, California, Dr Thynne will record from brain cells expressing proteins that are known to be altered in autism, and determine how synapses are altered. Together the data may provide an insight into the underlying process involved in the cognitive symptoms associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

PROJECT GRANTS

Connexion43 mimetic peptide therapy for the treatment of ischemic stroke

Amelia Van Slooten
Department of Pharmacology
University of Auckland

$11,962

Ischemic stroke occurs when an artery to the brain is blocked, and is the leading cause of adult disability in New Zealand. No pharmacological treatment is available for ischemic stroke beyond a ‘clot-busting’ agent that must be administered within four hours of the initial blockage. Effective treatment of stroke therefore represents a large unmet medical need. Brain inflammation is a critical mechanism involved in stroke and impacts profoundly on the extent of brain cell loss, as well as the progression of damage. Brain inflammation therefore offers an exciting therapeutic target for the treatment of stroke. This project will investigate whether blocking communication channels in specific cells can reduce brain inflammation, limit damage to brain cells and promote recovery following stroke. This will provide important data for the development of a novel therapy to treat stroke.
Exploring a novel mechanism of neuronal pathfinding and self-recognition

Dr Julia Horsfield
Department of Pathology
University of Otago

$11,761

Protocadherins are proteins that are expressed on the surface of a neuron and the unique combination of different forms of protocadherin act like a barcode to give each neuron its own identity. During brain development, when a neuron sends out an axon to make a functional connection, it needs to make sure the connection is with another neuron rather than a connection with itself, so it uses this protocadherin barcode to distinguish between self and non-self. Production of the protocadherin proteins is regulated by another protein called cohesin. This raises the possibility that cohesin, which also regulates cell division, might also influence neuron pathfinding and self-recognition. This study will investigate this intriguing new potential function of cohesin. Dr Horsfield’s laboratory uses zebrafish as a model to understand the early development of human disease. Zebrafish embryos develop externally in transparent eggshells, making it possible to watch them develop through a microscope over a couple of days. In this project, the scientists will use novel fluorescent marking techniques to see what happens to neuronal pathfinding and connectivity when cohesin function is disrupted during development.

A new test battery for assessing language in brain tumour patients

Dr Carolyn Wilshire
Victoria University of Wellington and
Neurosurgical Department, Wellington Hospital

$9,220

In patients undergoing surgery to remove brain tumours, neuropsychological assessment can play an important role. This assessment can help identify which functions are at greatest risk from
surgical resection, depending on the site of the tumour. In the case of awake craniotomy surgery (where the patient is conscious during surgery), tasks that reveal abnormalities before the operation can even be used to help guide the surgical processes, thereby helping to minimise functional damage. The assessment of language is particularly important, not only because language difficulties are common in tumour patients, but also because language is so vital to everyday social functioning. Dr Wilshire and team recently developed a new language test protocol for this purpose. The protocol assesses ten core language skills by means of a series of brief, computer-delivered tasks, and can provide precise information as to the likely functional impact of tumour surgery on language. The protocol could significantly increase patients’ quality of life after surgery.

Expression of molecular markers of Alzheimer’s disease in the eye

Dr Monica Acosta
Department of Optometry and Vision Science
University of Auckland

$11,995

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a condition that causes decline in memory and cognitive function, and is the most common form of dementia. Recently, Alzheimer’s disease-related changes have been reported within the eye, long before features of cognitive impairment and memory loss are apparent. Unlike the brain, the transparent nature of the eye allows for non-invasive testing of this extension of the central nervous system. Clinical and histological evidence suggests that visual disturbances observed in AD patients may be due to abnormal retinal function. The research hypothesis is that there are deposits of Alzheimer’s disease proteins in the retina affecting specific cells, resulting in abnormal neuronal processing which is different from the ageing process. This study will investigate at a molecular level whether the eye is affected in a laboratory model of the disease. The findings could be used in identifying an ocular test for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Astrocyte-neuron communication in a novel homeostatic form of metaplasticity

Professor Cliff Abraham
Department of Psychology
University of Otago

$201,384

Learning occurs through changing the strength of synaptic connections between nerve cells in the brain. The nervous system is made up of billions of these nerve cells, and effective communication between the cells is crucial to the normal functioning of the central and peripheral nervous systems. Most neuronal cells communicate via synapses, and the process through which this information is communicated is called synaptic transmission. This process is impaired in neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Abraham’s study will investigate the role of astrocytes, a non-neuronal brain cell, in controlling memory-related changes in synaptic transmission. This regulation may be important for normal learning and memory, and its alteration may contribute to cognitive impairments seen in many neurological diseases. The study will investigate whether these regulatory mechanisms are impaired in a laboratory model of Alzheimer’s disease. Understanding these processes may help identify new molecular targets for therapeutic interventions to rescue impaired memory and cognition.

The effects of non-invasive brain stimulation on pain, corticomotor excitability, and the nociceptive system in people with neuropathic pain

Dr Gwyn Lewis
Health and Rehabilitation Research Institute
AUT University

$67,879

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive brain stimulation technique that has been shown to reduce pain in people with chronic pain conditions. The brain processes involved in pain reduction following tDCS are currently unknown. It is important to determine the effects of tDCS to understand the mechanisms of analgesia and identify patient groups who will be most responsive to tDCS.

This project proposes to examine changes in the nervous system of people with long-term arm pain who will receive brain stimulation intervention over five days. The study findings will provide more information on how brain stimulation works and the types of patients who will benefit most from this treatment. This will facilitate the clinical use of brain stimulation for the treatment of chronic pain.

Development of novel kappa opioid compounds for the treatment of drug addiction

Dr Bronwyn Kivell
School of Biological Sciences
Victoria University of Wellington

$129,402

Drug dependency is a brain disease resulting in devastating consequences for patients, their families and society. Many drug-dependent people develop neurological disorders which impose an increasingly heavy burden on neurological services in New Zealand. Current estimates are that 24 per cent of New Zealanders aged 15 – 34 years use amphetamines and other drugs of abuse. A Ministry of Health report (2010) and National Survey data (2006) point to an epidemic of drug abuse, with New Zealanders being amongst the world’s highest consumers of amphetamine-type stimulants.

Although there are some therapeutic drugs, none are available to treat addiction to psychostimulants such as methamphetamine, cocaine, or amphetamine. Previous research has shown that drugs activating a protein in the brain called the kappa opioid receptor reduce drug use. Unfortunately, side-effects prevent its therapeutic use. The aim of this project is to measure the anti-addiction effects of a structurally new class of compound known to activate this protein. New compounds with anti-addiction properties will be identified in this study. If these compounds show efficacy with reduced side-effects, successful anti-dependency therapeutics can be developed.

The development of a wireless intracranial pressure sensor for the management of hydrocephalus

Associate Professor Simon Malpas
Auckland Bioengineering Institute and
Department of Physiology
University of Auckland

$158,695

Hydrocephalus is a relatively common clinical condition associated with increased pressure on the brain due to excess fluid and/or a failure to drain this fluid. It is fatal unless a drainage catheter or shunt is inserted. While lifesaving, this shunt blocks in approximately 50 per cent of cases and requires surgical revision of one of its components. The major clinical issue is in the need to diagnose whether the shunt is failing or if the patient simply has an unrelated headache. For people with hydrocephalus a simple headache often means an urgent trip to the hospital for a scan. Now a team of engineers and neurosurgeons at the University of Auckland hopes to remove that stress by developing a tiny implant which will sense and transmit, through a wireless communicator, the level of pressure inside a person’s brain. This device will enable early and correct diagnosis, consequently reducing patient anxiety and improving the medical management of hydrocephalus patients.

ENDS



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