Picking the ideal treatment for people with schizophrenia – new project funded in the CBR

Patients with schizophrenia could soon be prescribed tailored drugs for their biology, as a new project gets underway in the Centre for Brain Research. Funding from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation has enabled promising Research Fellow Dr Valerie Anderson to undertake the research.

Standard medications are not affective in approximately a third of people with schizophrenia, and these patients are considered ‘treatment-resistant’. Alternative medication and combinations of antipsychotics must be used, but these medications have a greater risk of inducing serious side effects and therefore are avoided where possible. Consequently, people with treatment-resistant schizophrenia often experience many years of unsuccessful therapy with standard medications before alternatives are prescribed, during which time their symptoms severely affect daily living and have a significant impact on long-term outcomes.

 The Psychopharmacology team will now investigate whether they can identify measurable biological characteristics (biomarkers) that could be used to predict whether people with schizophrenia will be treatment-resistant. Brain magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography, and neuropsychological data will be collected and analysed to investigate the structure and function of the brain in people with schizophrenia who are treatment-resistant, and the findings compared to people with schizophrenia who respond well to standard medications and normal subjects.

 Identification of reliable biomarkers to predict treatment-resistant schizophrenia would enable alternative medications to be prescribed earlier in the disease course. This will ultimately minimise the time that these patients experience debilitating symptoms, leading to improved outcomes for them, and reducing the burden on their families and health care providers.

 The Auckland Medical Research Foundation has also funded two new PhD scholarships at the Centre for Brain Research. Foundation Executive Director Kim McWilliams says: “Many of these researchers already have and will go on to become leaders and internationally recognised in their particular discipline or field of medicine.”


Biomarkers for treatment resistant schizophrenia ($179,267 – two years)
Dr Valerie Anderson, Psychopharmacology and Neurodynamics

Preterm stem cell therapy (Doctoral Scholarship $122,000 – three years)
Miss Lotte van den Heuij, Fetal Physiology

Visual brain plasticity in adult humans (Doctoral Scholarship $122,000 – three years)
Mr Victor Borges, Visual Neuroscience Group

Freemasons fund new drug discovery programme

A world-leading drug discovery programme is being developed at the Centre for Brain Research, thanks to a donation from the Freemasons of New Zealand.

 The generous gift of $248,000 will enable the development of new drugs for neurodegenerative disorders. The funding brings together an expert scientific team, including medicinal chemists led by Professor Margaret Brimble from the School of Chemical Sciences and neuropharmacologists working in the CBR Biobank.

 New drug compounds will be developed by synthetic chemist DrAmanda Heapy, who has been awarded the Freemasons fellowship for this work. The team has a unique library of 2000 bioactive natural products. These novel compounds will be tested directly on human tissues in the Biobank, to speed up the drug development process.

 Dr Heapy says: “Collaboration is key. With medicinal chemistry we need constant feedback from biologists about what direction to go and we hope to provide a more tailored service to the pharmacologists which will fast track the search for novel compounds. The Centre for Brain Research has the Biobank, facilities and all the procedures set up for us to do this, whilst the chemists have the compound library. Thus, working closely is a huge competitive advantage — having discussions in person and bouncing ideas off one another.

 David Mace is the Chairman of the Freemasons Roskill Foundation, and says: “The Freemasons are delighted to announce the funding of this fellowship to continue the valuable work by New Zealand researchers at the forefront of global investigation.”

A Memorandum of Understanding was also signed by Vice Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon and the Grand Master of the Freemasons on 25th November, to celebrate the ongoing collaboration and support between the Freemasons and University research.

CBR Aotearoa Fellows Announced

The CBR is pleased to announce the appointment of the two new Aotearoa Foundation Neuroscience Postdoctoral Fellows at the Centre for Brain Research. Dr Gjurgjica Badzakova-Trajkov and Dr James Coxon will take up the posts in the near future.

The new fellowships are a generous gift from Julian Robertson’s Aotearoa Foundation in New York. They aim to support development of the Centre’s strategic initiatives, to help foster future research leaders here in New Zealand, and to progress world-class neuroscience research across the Centre for Brain Research. With a large number of excellent candidates, appointing the fellows was an extremely difficult and challenging task for the selection panel.

Dr Gjurgjica Badzakova completed her PhD in Psychology at the University of Auckland in 2008, and is completing a Diploma of Clinical Psychology.  She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow with Professor Corballis in the Department of Psychology.  She will work in the laboratory of Dr Lynette Tippett, along with Dr Suzanne Barker-Collo, Professor Mike Corballis and Professor Rob Kydd. Her project involves using Diffusion Tensor Imaging to examine white matter nerve tracts in patients who have had a Traumatic Brain Injury.

Dr James Coxon was a Bright Futures Doctoral Scholar and completed his PhD in 2007 at the University of Auckland.  He holds a post-doctoral fellowship in the Research Centre for Movement Control and Neuroplasticity at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.  When he returns to New Zealand he will work in the laboratory of Professor Winston Byblow, along with Professor Greg Anson, Dr James Stinear and Dr Nick Gant. His project will use Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to examine whether exercise can protect against neurodegeneration with aging.

We congratulate these two inaugural Aotearoa Fellows and look forward to welcoming them to the CBR.

There is one more Fellowship to appoint in 2012, and further announcements will made early in the year.