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Neurological Foundation Announces July 2014 Grant Recipients

7 July 2014

Neurological Foundation Announces July 2014 Grant Round Recipients

$1 million committed to neurological research across New Zealand

The Neurological Foundation is pleased to announce that funding of close to $1 million for neurological research, a Repatriation Fellowship and travel grants has been approved in its July 2014 grant round, the first of two rounds held each year. 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 exemplifies the progress of neurological research in this country. New Zealand-based advances in genetic research and breakthrough findings involving proteins, as well as cutting-edge technology are helping our talented researchers to unravel the processes involved in brain disease and injury. It is also exciting to see several patient-focused clinical studies in this grant round. Much hard work is involved in taking research from the scientific laboratory to the hospital clinic and this progress will quickly advance to improve preventative strategies and patient care.”

The July grants will fund research projects at the University of Auckland, AUT University, Auckland City Hospital, Christchurch Hospital, the University of Otago, Christchurch, and the University of Otago, Dunedin.

In addition to the research projects funded in this round, movement neuroscientist Dr Rebekah Blakemore has been awarded the 2014 Neurological Foundation Repatriation Fellowship. This award will enable Dr Blakemore to return to New Zealand from the University of Geneva, Switzerland to the University of Otago, Christchurch, to further develop her research focused on the effect of stress on movement function in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Leading Christchurch neurologist and Parkinson’s disease authority Professor Tim Anderson will supervise Dr Blakemore’s research. A University of Otago graduate, Dr Blakemore intends to become a leader in the field of Affective and Movement Neuroscience and to establish her own Movement Neuroscience research programme in New Zealand.

All grant details follow.

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.

For further information or interviews please contact Sue Giddens, General Manager Marketing and Fundraising on 021 650 906 or

Neurological Foundation research approved July 2014

Grants totaling $996,733 were approved by the Neurological Foundation Council on 4 July 2014.

Educational travel grants were awarded in addition to the below.

Repatriation Fellowships are intended to support the repatriation of outstanding young researchers who have recently completed postdoctoral studies outside New Zealand and who propose to return to New Zealand and conduct research in scientific fields of relevance to the Neurological Foundation.

Dr Rebekah Blakemore
University of Otago, Christchurch
Supervisors: Professor Tim Anderson and Dr Michael MacAskill

Returning from a Postdoctoral Research Fellow position at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

Can acute emotional stress impair motor function in individuals with Parkinson’s disease? The effect of effective state on precision-grip force control

The aim of Dr Rebekah Blakemore’s research on her return to New Zealand is to investigate the role that emotional stress may play in impairing the motor (movement) function of individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD). There is a growing body of literature supporting the long-held notion that stress profoundly affects motor behaviour and may worsen the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (PD). However the role that stress may play in modulating motor symptoms of individuals with PD remains unknown. Dr Blakemore will investigate how acute emotional stress alters grip force control and muscle activity in PD patients and healthy individuals. Given that stress is an important risk factor for depression and almost half of PD patients experience depression, understanding the impact of stress on motor behaviour may inform development of emotion-movement interventions to improve motor function in PD.


Dr Beulah Leitch
Department of Anatomy
University of Otago

Ultrastructural identification of newly synthesised receptor proteins at activated synapses

A synapse is a structure in the brain that allows a neuron (nerve cell) to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron. The synapse plays a critical role in memory, and specific proteins are essential for the changes in the strength of synaptic signalling that underlie memories and learning. Recent evidence suggests that new proteins may be synthesised in another part of the neuron and incorporated into synapses, and that loss of this process may be linked to human disorders associated with cognitive deficits. Dr Leith’s study aims to identify, with cutting-edge technology, newly synthesised proteins at stimulated synapses, and to investigate if altered local protein synthesis contributes to the synaptic dysfunction that underlies various brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Douglas Campbell
Auckland City Hospital

Neurological Impact of Vascular events In non-cardiac Surgery patIents cOhort evaluatioN Study, (NeuroVISION)

Stroke is an uncommon complication of major (general) surgery in elderly patients. Brain complications however, such as delirium and confusion, are common. Dr Campbell’s study aims to show that very small, previously undetected (covert) strokes cause these complications. The international study will recruit 1500 surgical patients, including 230 patients in New Zealand. Brain scans will be done to see if covert strokes are associated with these complications of surgery and anaesthesia. If there is a cause and effect relationship, then further studies could show simple treatments like aspirin and managing blood pressure during and after operations will improve patient outcomes.

Dr Liana Machado
Department of Psychology
University of Otago

Roles of frontal cortex subregions in controlling eye movements: Can transcranial direct current stimulation improve eye movement control in older populations?

Healthy ageing is associated with difficulties controlling the eye movement system, particularly when a high level of strategic control is required, and neurological disease can exacerbate these difficulties. Exciting new research shows that a non-invasive brain stimulation technique, transcranial direct current stimulation, applied over the frontal cortex region of the brain, can improve eye movement control in young adults. Dr Machado’s research aims to first determine the most effective brain stimulation protocol for improving eye movement control, and then to test whether healthy older adults can also benefit. If so, future research will test the efficacy of the new brain stimulation protocol in patients with neurological disorders.

Professor Martin Wild
Department of Anatomy
University of Auckland

Role of neural plasticity in functional recovery following unilateral brain damage

Injury to one hemisphere of the adult brain often results in more profound sensory (vision, hearing, touch) and motor (movement) deficits than similar injury inflicted in children. The reasons for this are controversial, but may be related to the ability of young brains to undergo a restructuring process (plasticity). Animal research has shown that “re-juvenilising” the adult brain with the application of an enzyme leads to a recovery of sensorimotor function. Professor Wild’s project aims to determine whether and when re-juvenilising the adult brain following a unilateral brain injury enhances sensorimotor recovery. This study also aims to being to understand the mechanisms that promote functional recovery in the brain.

Dr Louise Parr-Brownlie
Department of Anatomy
University of Otago

Characterising basal ganglia synapses onto motor thalamus neurons in health and
Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder caused by the loss of dopamine cells in the brain. To fully understand the biological basis of parkinsonism, the effect of the lack of dopamine to connections in brain circuits that control movement needs to be identified. Using a model of Parkinson’s disease, Dr Parr-Brownlie will combine gene therapy and electron microscopy (a high resolution imaging technique) to identify the anatomical characteristics of the connection between the basal ganglia and motor thalamus in healthy brains, and investigate changes that occur in this region in parkinsonian brains. Results will improve our understanding of the causes of Parkinson’s disease and may highlight new ways to treat the disease.

Dr Zoe Woodward
Neurology Department
Christchurch Hospital

Plasma CNP peptides in Parkinson’s disease

Dr Woodward’s research will study the blood levels of a recently discovered protein called C-type Natriuretic Peptide (CNP) in people with Parkinson’s disease. In recently reported ground-breaking research, the Dr Woodward’s Christchurch group has discovered that CNP levels in the fluid surrounding brain tissues is reduced in patients with Parkinson’s disease except in those receiving drugs aimed at delaying the progression of the condition. Whether similar changes occur in blood levels of CNP is unknown. These results could lead to improved methods of monitoring the progression of Parkinson’s disease as well as novel ways of assessing the response to drug treatment.

Dr Denise Taylor
Health and Rehabilitation Research Institute
AUT University, Auckland

The Aalborg BCI: a MRCP driven PAS protocol for people with stroke

A brain computer interface (BCI) is a system that interprets brain signals generated by the person, allowing specific commands from the brain to be sent to an external device. These BCI devices can be combined with novel rehabilitation treatments with the aim of enhancing the benefits of rehabilitation in people with neurological disorders such as stroke. The Aalborg BCI system (from Aalborg University in Denmark) identifies a brain signal that is used to trigger an electrical stimulus that has been shown to increase the excitability of the brain and enhance movement. The aim of this research is to determine if the Aalborg BCI device will result in meaningful functional changes for people with stroke.

Dr Ping Liu
Department of Anatomy
University of Otago

Arginine metabolism and schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a debilitating chronic mental disorder and the exact cause is poorly understood. An amino acid called L-arginine may be involved in the development of schizophrenia. Dr Liu’s project involves both human and animal work to investigate how this amino acid changes in schizophrenic brains, and the processes involved that lead to prolonged behavioural and neurochemical changes. This information will enhance the understanding of the cause of schizophrenia and may lead to the development of new preventative strategies or treatments for schizophrenia.


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