PhD student awarded prestigious opportunity to study in USA

Neuroscientist Chantelle Fourie has a rare opportunity to spend three months near Boston, Massachusetts, researching her dream project.

Chantelle, a PhD student at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research, is one of only 12 young neuroscientists from around the world to be awarded a coveted Grass Fellowship in neuroscience research.

Her specialist area, and the subject of her almost completed PhD, is the brain’s hippocampus, involved in learning and memory. Chantelle has studied with Dr Johanna Montgomery who runs the synaptic function research group. At the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, she will focus on using optogenetics to map inhibitory circuitry and probe its function in the hippocampus.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet some of the world’s eminent neuroscientists and learn from them, and to make connections with other scientists there for later collaborations,” she says. “This research has not been done in Auckland, but I’ll be able to return with the knowledge and experience to set up a similar facility here.”

Optogenetics is the study of using light to to control the genetic transcription, and therefore the activity, of individual neurons in living tissue. The technique is exciting much interest because it can be used in freely-moving animals in real-time, and so scientists can precisely alter the activity of specific brain areas without directly affecting a subject’s behavior.

Chantelle will take up the fellowship in May and spend the northern summer at Woods Hole, returning to New Zealand in September.

“It’s a dream come true and very exciting to be able to work on this project,” she says. “Although it was hard to come up with a project that can be set up and completed in just 14 weeks.”

Chantelle is due to hand in her doctoral research thesis in May, before she leaves to take up the Fellowship, and says it’s great motivation for finishing on time. Many of the post-doctoral students who do summer research at Woods Hole are able to get results and publish in that short time, partly due to the level of support offered by the scientific community there.

The Grass Fellowship includes all expenses involved with the visit and the research laboratory and equipment, paid for by the Grass Foundation which is a non-profit private foundation set up to support research and education in neuroscience. The Fellowship is intended to help neuroscientists during the early stages of their career to conduct independent research within the intellectual and social group at the MBL community.

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A closer look at depression

CBR member Dr Donna-Rose Addis features in the latest issue of Auckland Now, an occasional publication by the University of Auckland which seeks to showcase the impact the university has on our local and international communities through teaching, research, and community service.

Donna discusses past work by her research group, The Memory Lab, and details their latest project, which will use imaging technologies to gain insight into processes and potential structural changes in the brains of people with a history of depression.  She hopes this will increase of our understanding of the cognitive and memory changes that are often seen in depressed patients.

You can view the full article online here:

http://www.auckland.ac.nz/webdav/site/central/shared/for/the-media/publications/Auckland%20Now/AK%20Now%20Issue%2011%20web%20version.pdf

Student Research Recognised

The Centre for Brain Research congratulates Malvindar Singh-Bains on winning the prize for ‘Best Student Poster Presentation’ at the recent Australasian Winter Conference on Brain Research held in Queenstown.

Her presentation was identified as the winner from a field of 66 entries, by a panel of ‘undercover’ judges, who mingled with conference-goers evaluating the presenters and their posters.

Malvindar’s poster, titled ‘The Human Globus Pallidus in Huntington’s Disease: Volume reduction and differential cell loss between external and internal segments’, covers the research she is undertaking for her PhD, and the methods used to evaluate and compare cell loss and volume reduction.

Malvindar’s approach of presenting as though ‘telling a story’ obviously worked for her.  She says, ‘I feel rather humble about this because there were so many fantastic posters demonstrating high quality research on display.  I’m really proud to represent the Centre for Brain Research, and I thoroughly enjoyed both the conference, with such a variety of neuroscience on offer, and the beauty of Queenstown at this time of the year!’

Congratulations, Malvindar.

Malvindar is pictured below, with her winning entry.

Imagining the future

The Mind Reading team aim to use MRI to detect the difference between a lie and a memory at the event in Brain Awareness Week.

Here Dr Donna Rose Addis explains her research showing how memory is used to imagine future events. You can listen to her speaking on Radio NZ Summer Nights, or view a video on Facebook.

Meet the Mind Reading Team

Donna Rose will be leading the MRI analysis for the live Mind Reading event

Over the next few days we will be introducing the Mind Reading team who will be bringing you the exciting live MRI event in March for Brain Awareness Week.

First up is Dr Donna Rose Addis

Donna Rose is an up and coming young researcher, who studies memory and imagination. Her work is exciting much interest, and she was recently awarded both the prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowship and the 2010 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize.

Donna Rose is a cognitive neuroscientist in the Centre for Brain Research, where she is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. She leads the Memory Lab team, and uses neuropsychological and neuroimaging techniques to understand how we remember our pasts and imagine our futures, and how these abilities change with age, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.

Dr Addis grew up in Mangere East, Auckland. She was the dux of Aorere College and New Zealand’s Top All-Round Scholar of Pacific Island Descent in 1995. She completed her BA and MA in Psychology at The University of Auckland. She then undertook a PhD as a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Toronto, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University. She returned to New Zealand in 2008.

Donna Rose will be leading the MRI analysis for the Mind Reading event, trying to use this exciting technology to work out if she can tell the difference between imagination and memory. Of course imagination is a nice word for lying… and so we’ll also be testing the lie detection powers of MRI!

Mind Reading? Live brain scan event planned for March 2012

The science of imaging the brain

The science of imaging the brainMind reading is the ultimate superhero skill – beyond the realms of human possibility. Yet new technology is bringing this futuristic scenario within our grasp.

We are proud to announce this exciting event, planned for Brain Awareness Week in March, to uncover the science of brain imaging! Join us as top scientists Associate Professor Brett Cowan and Dr Donna Rose Addis from The University of Auckland showcase the incredible technology of MRI and provide a behind the scenes glimpse of cutting-edge brain research.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) allows scientists to see brain areas ‘light up’ as we think. Movements, emotions, memories and intentions have all been visualised, enabling scientists to see inside a person’s mind, and possibly predict the future. Yet how much is science, and how much is fiction?

In this public event we will explore the inner workings of the brain, delving into the origins of memories and learning more about our identity as human beings. Featuring live analysis of a brain scan, ‘Mind Reading?’ is a first for New Zealand.

Sign up to receive regular updates from our Team MRI

Wednesday 14th March

Time: 6:45pm – 8:30pm
Where: Auckland Museum, The Auckland Domain, Parnell
Cost: $10 (plus $3 booking fee) Tickets may be purchased on the door, or by phoning 09 306 7048.

Hosted by the Centre for Brain Research and Centre for Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and with thanks to our sponsors Siemens, Auckland Museum Institute and the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Promising young brain researcher returns to NZ

Hawkes Bay-born Dr Erin Cawston has been named the 2011 Neurological Foundation Repatriation Fellow. Erin will return from her position as Research Fellow at the Mayo Clinic Arizona next month, in order to further her research into Huntington’s disease at the Centre for Brain Research.

 The Repatriation Fellowship ensures outstanding young researchers who have completed postdoctoral studies overseas can return home and continue to develop their research careers in their specialist area. Dr Cawston says “I am incredibly grateful to the Neurological Foundation for this Repatriation Fellowship allowing me to come home to New Zealand. I look forward to working with Associate Professor Michelle Glass and Professor Mike Dragunow on such an exciting project as well as being back amongst the New Zealand scientific community.” Dr Cawston begins her Fellowship at The University of Auckland in February.

 Alongside this exciting research, the Neurological Foundation has also funded a number of exciting new research projects at the CBR.

 Optimising a novel induced neural precursor-like cell line Associate Professor Bronwen Connor, Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology, Centre for Brain Research University of Auckland, $136,862 

 The generation of ‘embryonic-like’ stem cells from adult human skin was first demonstrated in 2007. This project will advance this capability by directly generating immature brain cells (neural precursor cells) from adult human skin. Of major significance is that this will avoid the need to generate an intermediate embryonic-like stem cell phase, providing neural precursor cells for therapeutic applications without risk of tumour formation from stem cells. This project provides a unique opportunity to establish a novel technology which is likely to have wide-reaching applications for future research in the areas of neurological disease modeling, drug development, and potentially cell replacement therapy.

 A genetic mechanism underlying late-onset Alzheimer’s disease Professor Russell Snell, School of Biological Sciences University of Auckland, $86,875

 Alzheimer’s disease is a debilitating disorder affecting up to 50 per cent of those aged over 80 years old. Despite decades of research and innumerable clinical trials, there are no treatments that prevent or reverse the progression of the disease. There is currently some evidence that patients have a small proportion of brain cells with three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the normal two, leading to an increased production of the toxic protein amyloid-beta peptide. This study aims to confirm this observation, determine the pathological consequences of these cells and look for markers that make these cells different, which may lead to new therapies.

 Immodulation of stroke with risperidone Associate Professor Bronwen Connor, Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology, Centre for Brain Research, University of Auckland, $11,999

 Stroke is a leading cause of disability in New Zealand and the burden associated with this neurological disorder is increasing. Treatment of stroke represents a large, unmet medical need. Neuroinflammation is an important pathophysiological mechanism involved in stroke and impacts profoundly on the extent of cell loss, as well as injury progression. Neuroinflammation therefore offers an exciting therapeutic target for the treatment of stroke. It has been recently demonstrated that the anti-psychotic drug, risperidone, is effective at reducing neuroinflammation and disease progression in a model of multiple sclerosis. This project will now explore whether the anti-inflammatory properties of risperidone can reduce the progression and severity of stroke. 

 Do BMP antagonists play a role in directing the fate of adult neural progenitor cells following neural cell loss?
Shwetha George, Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology, Centre for Brain Research, University of Auckland, $4,000

 The ability for adult neural stem cells to migrate to areas of brain damage and generate replacement brain cells may provide a unique mechanism by which to develop novel therapeutic strategies for the treatment of brain injury or neurological disease. However, the local environment appears to be critical for directing the final fate of adult stem cells in the damaged brain. This study will investigate whether brain injury alters the expression of a group of compounds known as bone morphogenic protein antagonists to promote adult neural stem cells to form glial rather than neuronal cells. The results of this study will enhance our knowledge as to how stem cells respond to brain cell loss and may assist in the development of novel therapeutic strategies for the treatment of brain injury or disease.