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Understanding the autonomic nervous system

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Understanding the autonomic nervous system

The University’s Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) is part of a major international effort to understand and use the autonomic nervous system to treat disease.

Under the leadership of director, Professor Peter Hunter, the ABI is playing a key role in a US-based National Institutes of Health (NIH) $20 million-plus program called “Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions” (SPARC).

“This programme recognises that all the organs of the body are innervated by the autonomic nervous system,” explains Professor Hunter.

“For example, when you have a fright you release adrenalin into your body, your heart rate speeds up and all sorts of things change partly because you are releasing hormones into the blood stream, but also because your neural system is activating through neural transmission to your organs.”

This has been a relatively neglected area of neuroscience, he adds, as researchers have focused on the higher cognitive functions of the brain.

But a year ago the NIH funded a number of experimental groups to map out neural innervation looking at how peripheral nerves send out electrical signals to a particular organ in response to external and internal factors such as stress, diet, exercise and disease.

Part of NIH’s motivation is a growing awareness that modulation of these electrical, control signals via therapies and devices is a potentially powerful way to treat many diseases and conditions such as hypertension, heart failure, gastrointestinal disorders, type II diabetes, inflammatory disorders, and more.

“But more knowledge is needed to fully understand how these therapies control internal organ function,” says Professor Hunter.

In addition, the design of more effective neuro-modulation therapies requires knowing exactly what nerves one must stimulate and how they must be stimulated to achieve the desired effect on organ function.”

A key aspect of the SPARC project is mapping and organising all the digital information that is being generated. This is where ABI comes in. Professor Hunter and his team (which includes Dr Bernard de Bono and Dr David Nickerson from the ABI, as well as a number of ABI software developers) are one of three groups commissioned to form the Data and Resource Center working on digital components of SPARC.

“Our role is to map data as it is collected and not only from different organs but also from the different animal species used in physiological experiments,” says Professor Hunter.

Over five years, ABI will be mapping all the data as it is produced and developing web portals that will enable researchers to interact with the data and start developing computer models.
“This builds on the infrastructure and modelling work we’ve already developed,” says Professor Hunter, “and it will enable us to acquire new skills and experience with neural pathways.

University physiologist, Professor Julian Paton, who has spent 30 years studying the autonomic nervous system and is collaborating with ABI says modulating the activity of nerves controlling our organs has huge potential for addressing unmet clinical need for many cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

“The SPARC programme will provide essential information and, for the first time, reveal how the brain talks to every organ of our body which can be subsequently mimicked by devices to treat diseases.”



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