CBR Hosts Launch of ‘Minds for Minds’ Campaign

The Centre for Brain Research was the setting last week for the launch of the ‘Minds for Minds’ campaign, an initiative of the Autism Research Network New Zealand (ARNNZ), to raise awareness and funding for research into the genetic causes of Autism.  They are also seeking people on the autism spectrum to join a research register, which will be used to collect genetic and autobiographical information.

Over a hundred people packed our seminar room space to hear a series of the lead researchers from the network give a precis of their research, and how it contributes to the ‘overall picture’, before the unveiling of the campaign phrase ‘Minds for Minds’, together with its appealing brain logo.  To read columnist Deborah Hill Cone’s view of the campaign and its significance, click here:

ARNNZ lead researcher Professor Russell Snell with journalist Deborah Hill Cone.

ARNNZ lead researcher Professor Russell Snell with journalist Deborah Hill Cone.

Several of the founding members of ARNNZ are also CBR members, and it looks as though they mean to apply the same principles of working alongside clinical experts and members of the community to ensure the best results for those living with autism, and their families.  Go to www.arnnz.org to find out how you can be part of the picture.

ARNNZ members flank the 'Minds for Minds' logo. L-R: Associate Professor Karen Waldie (CBR), Dr Johanna Montgomery (CBR), Professor Ian Kirk (CBR), Dr Mike Taylor, Professor Russell Snell (CBR), Dr Jessie Jacobsen (CBR), and Dr Rosamund Hill

ARNNZ members flank the ‘Minds for Minds’ logo. L-R: Associate Professor Karen Waldie (CBR), Dr Johanna Montgomery (CBR), Professor Ian Kirk (CBR), Dr Mike Taylor, Professor Russell Snell (CBR), Dr Jessie Jacobsen (CBR), and Dr Rosamund Hill

CBR in the News!

The Centre for Brain Research has been getting in the news this week – for all the right reasons!

On Wednesday 17th July, Professor Richard Faull was interviewed by Kathryn Ryan on Radio New Zealand’s ‘Nine to Noon’ programme, discussing the discovery of stem cells within the brain, and the controversy this finding caused in the research world.  They also cover the evolution of the Neurological Foundation Human Brain Bank, and the links it creates and maintains with clinician, community, and the families of those affected by neurological disease.  You can listen to a recording of the interview here: http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player/2562370

Later in the day, Professor Faull also featured on on Sky Sports’ ‘Deaker on Sport’ programme, talking with Murray Deaker and neurologist Rosamund Hill about concussion and our growing understanding of its long-term effects – always a relevant issue in our sport-focused nation.

A breakthrough in understanding the behaviour of stem cells as they ‘bed down’ in their destination within the brain has lead to media exposure for Dr Maurice Curtis and his lab, with a report on their latest research appearing in the New Zealand Herald.   Read the full article here: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/science/news/article.cfm?c_id=82&objectid=10899554

Improved treatment for Parkinson’s on the way

Professor Winston Byblow

Professor Winston Byblow

CBR member Professor Winston Byblow is the recent recipient of a grant from the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand.  His research aims to develop behavioural tests and identify genetic markers which may be used in future to indicate whether or not a patient with Parkinson’s is a good candidate for dopamine agonist medication, and is entitled: Falling off the curve: the link between impulsivity and dopamine.

Dopamine agonists, which mimic the action of dopamine upon its specific receptors, are a mainstay of the treatment regimen for Parkinson’s disease, and lead to significant improvements in quality of life for the majority of patients.  However, like all medications, they have side effects, and these manifest in different ways in different people.  For some people (10-20%), side effects include the development of impulse control disorders such as gambling addiction, hypersexuality, and compulsive spending.

The possibility for these side effects to occur in patients receiving dopamine agonist therapy was noted about a decade ago, but at that time scientists were not able to tell whether or not the affected patients had any particular features which made them especially vulnerable to developing compulsive behaviour disorders.  Later studies have suggested that this sub-population may have a particular profile, and Professor Byblow’s study aims to further identify this, and develop a tool for clinicians to make good prescribing choices for their patients in future.

Funding boost for CBR researchers

The latest round of project grants from the Health Research Council of New Zealand were announced last week, and three CBR members have received sizeable grants – a real vote of confidence in what is a highly competitive process which often sees less than ten percent of applications go on to receive grants.

Professor Peter Thorne (below) receives $966,266 over 36 months for Imaging the labyrinthine-blood barrier in Meniere’s disease.  Meniere’s disease is a disorder of the inner ear that affects hearing and balance, leading to hearing loss and episodes of vertigo.

Peter Thorne

Dr Ben Thompson receives $1,167,538 over 36 months for A randomized clinical trial of a new binocular treatment for amblyopia.  You can read more about this research here: http://www.fmhs.auckland.ac.nz/faculty/newsandevents/new_news_details.aspx?Id=1027

Dr Ben Thompson

Dr Ben Thompson

Dr Deborah Hay receives $1,199,853 over 36 months for Adrenomedullin 1 receptor antagonists as novel anti-angiogenic agents.  An excellent result for these researchers and for CBR.

Debbie Hay

World first treatment helps with lazy eye

Playing Tetris under controlled conditions may be a cure for lazy eye in both children and adults. Although amblyopia is often known as “lazy eye” the impairment in vision is due to abnormal development within visual areas of the brain, not a defect of the eye.

Dr Ben Thompson

Dr Ben Thompson

The world first Tetris experiments were devised by vision scientist Dr Ben Thompson, from The University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research, in collaboration with a team including Professor Robert Hess from McGill University.

You can watch Dr Ben Thompson discussing his work, and see examples of the special tetris being played, on One News’ broadcast of 26 April by clicking here.  (content loads slowly)

These experiments showed that presenting a higher intensity Tetris stimulation to the affected eye than the good eye, helps train both eyes to work together.  Different blocks are presented to each eye and the two eyes must work together for the game to be played.

The team’s latest study published in ‘Current Biology’, demonstrated fast improvements in vision after the Tetris treatment, and that the benefits have so far proven to last at least three months.

“We found much larger improvements in patients who were treated with the version of the Tetris game that encouraged both eyes to work together than those that played Tetris with their good eye patched.”, says Dr Thompson.

Participants in the study were given special video goggles to help their eyes work as a team and asked to play Tetris for one hour a day for ten days.  At the end of the period, their lazy eye showed significant improvement in binocular ability.

Dr Thompson is a co-inventor of the Tetris game-based treatment for amblyopia and holds patents for the treatment regime.

Amblyopia is a disorder of binocular vision and with the way that the brain interprets information as it suppresses or ignores signals to one or other of the eyes.  The treatment is a new way of training both eyes to work together.

It’s estimated that one in 50 children has lazy eye, or amblyopia. This condition occurs when the brain receives different images from each eye during childhood which can be due to the eyes being misaligned.. Without intervention, it can lead to permanent loss of vision in the weaker eye.

The traditional treatment for lazy eye has been to patch the good eye to force the lazy eye to work. This treatment can be effective, but many children object to wearing the eye patch.

It was originally assumed that patients with amblyopia did not have the connections in the brain to use both eyes at the same time.  This study shows that patients could use both eyes at the same time, if the images to the lazy eye were more visible than those to the good eye.  The level of visibility is changed until both eyes are trained to work together – this takes about 10 days.

Dr Thompson is now hoping to gain funding for a large clinical trial that will take up to a year, again in collaboration with the study team.  If the clinical trials are positive the hope is that the treatment will become available to patients.

The study was funded by the Health Research Council and the Auckland Medical Health Research Foundation.

Written by Suzi Phillips, s.phillips@auckland.ac.nz

CBR scientists boosted with support from AMRF

The Auckland Medical Research Foundation has announced its latest round of grants, with several innovative projects funded in the Centre for Brain Research. The research will help to develop new treatments for Huntington’s disease, obesity, visual defects, and hearing loss.

– $141,154
Dr Johanna Montgomery, Dr Ailsa McGregor Dept of Physiology & Centre for Brain Research, The University of Auckland

All neurodegenerative diseases have direct or indirect effects on synapses in the brain. Therefore a major step towards understanding what goes wrong in the diseased brain is to understand how synapse function is altered by disease. In this proposal we seek to determine the source of synapse dysfunction in Huntington’s Disease (HD). Previous work on HD mouse models has shown that receptors on the surface of neurons are mis-localised, inducing changes in synapse function. Here we will focus on two synaptic proteins, bSAP97 and aSAP97, which we have recently shown can control the distribution of receptors on neurons (Li et al., 2011, J. Physiology 589, 4491-4510). We will utilise a cellular and an animal model of HD to determine whether changing the expression levels of bSAP97 or aSAP97 can rescue normal receptor distribution, and whether this subsequently rescues normal synapse function. These cellular data will identify whether a and/or bSAP97 are part of the pathological signature for HD and also whether they could be potential therapeutic targets.

– $97,250 Mr Nabin Paudel
Dept of Optometry & Vision Sciences, The University of Auckland

Newborn babies commonly experience low blood sugar, a condition known as neonatal hypoglycaemia.  As glucose is the brain’s main energy source, this condition may impair neurological function, however, at present, very little is known about the effect of neonatal hypoglycaemia on brain development.  As a consequence, the level of neonatal hypoglycaemia that requires treatment in early infancy is currently unknown.  This PhD project forms part of a large multidisciplinary study known as the Children with Hypoglycemia and their Later Development (the CHYLD study) which aims to assess the developmental effects of neonatal hypoglycaemia in a cohort of 500 children whose blood glucose levels were measured continuously for several days after birth.  The aim of this specific project is to assess visual function in these children at the ages of 2 and 4.5 years.  Vision is of particular interest as neonatal hypoglycaemia may preferentially affect visual brain areas.  The assessments include a range of vision tests targeting specific regions of the visual cortex and will therefore provide new insights into the effect of neonatal hypoglycaemia on the rate and extent of visual cortex development.  The study will also provide important information regarding the treatment and management of hypoglycaemia in newborns.

– $166,636
Dr Kathy Mountjoy, Dr Ailsa McGregor Dept of Physiology, The University of Auckland

Stress, weight gain and glucose metabolism are influenced by a group of hormones called melanocortin peptides. These peptides comprise chains of amino acids, of varying length, and are derived from one large precursor protein found in the brain and pituitary gland, called proopiomelanocortin (POMC). Special enzymes chop-up POMC to form the melanocortin peptides, according to the body’s requirement. We have developed a mouse that lacks a particular 13 amino acid melanocortin peptide called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH1-13). These mice can be used to study what effects of ACTH1-13 on physiological function. The mice appear normal until they reach puberty and then they develop obesity, but not diabetes. Treatment of these obese mice with ACTH1-13 or a natural variant that is slightly chemically altered, called -melanocyte stimulating hormone (-MSH), reduced mouse body weight and fat mass when mice were fed a normal diet. In light of the worldwide obesogenic environment, we will now test whether obesity and diabetes in these mice is exacerbated by a feeding a high-fat diet, and whether melanocortin hormone treatment can reverse obesity while animals feed on a high-fat diet. These studies should aid the development of improved tests and treatments for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

– $146,752 Dr Srdjan Vlajkovic, Prof Peter Thorne, Dr Detlev Boison, Prof Gary Housley
Dept of Physiology, The University of Auckland

Hearing loss affects 10-13% of New Zealanders and this prevalence will increase with the aging population. Exposure to noise and drugs toxic to the inner ear are major contributing factors to this disability. Prosthetic rehabilitation via hearing aids and cochlear implants is the only current treatment for hearing loss. Hence, it is essential to develop therapies that can ameliorate or repair injury to the delicate structures of the inner ear. We have shown that hearing loss in experimental animals exposed to traumatic noise can be substantially restored by administration of drugs acting on adenosine receptors. Here we propose a set of studies that will utilize transgenic mice that lack genes for the two main types of adenosine receptors found in the inner ear to assess their responses to aging, noise stress and drug toxicity. This is critical translational research for therapeutic management of noise, age and drug-induced hearing loss.

CeleBRation Choir Christmas Concert


If you are feeling in need of a Christmas-spirit booster, or if you just love a good sing-along, then join the Centre for Brain Research’s CeleBRation Choir for their annual Christmas Concert at the Tamaki Campus of Auckland University on the 17th December!

Music therapist Alison Talmage, who leads the choir with colleague Shari Ludlam, promises a medley of well-known Christmas songs and carols.  She says the choir members are hard at work rehearsing, and would love an enthusiastic audience to join in and applaud their efforts!

CeleBRation Choir Christmas Concert 2012

Monday 17th December, 2.00-2.30pm, Room 730-220

Tamaki Campus, University of Auckland, Morrin Road, Glen Innes.

For more information on the CeleBRation Choir, click here

Predicting Recovery After Stroke

A team of scientists from the Centre for Brain Research have just had their research into predictors for stroke recovery published in the prestigious journal ‘Brain’, one of the world’s top clinical neurology periodicals.

Cathy Stinear, Alan Barber, Matt Petoe and Winston Byblow collaborated to develop and test an algorithm for predicting the potential for recovery of function in the arms of stroke patients, by combining tests of physical function three days post-stroke with measures of nerve function and MRI scans of patients.  The resulting algorithm shows excellent predictive capability, and has the potential to transform stroke recovery practice, allowing for tailored rehabilitation planning, more efficient use of healthcare resources, and improved outcomes for patients.

Read the full media release here: http://www.fmhs.auckland.ac.nz/faculty/newsandevents/news_details.aspx?Id=948

The abstract for this article may be viewed online here: http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/135/8/2527.abstract

Questions and Answers around Stem Cell Research

The Centre for Brain Research was privileged to host, on Wednesday 6 June, the first New Zealand session of a travelling seminar which began in Australia, called Stem Cells: Hope, Hype, and Progress.

Attendees at the seminar, including those suffering from debilitating neurological conditions, were able to a hear a refreshingly honest account of the current state of stem cell research worldwide – free from the sensationalism of those accounts which often feature in the press.

The challenges of finding, collecting, and culturing varying kinds of stem cells (and the ethical procedures surrounding this) were discussed, along with the different potentials each offered for laboratory work or therapeutics.

The take-home message of the day, from the three presenters, was that stem cells’ greatest promise, at this point in time, lay in what they could teach those scientists culturing them about the ‘everyday’ activities of the cell, and as a medium for drug discovery to treat currently untreatable conditions, rather than as direct therapeutic agents.

CeleBRation Choir to perform at your place!

The CeleBRation Choir, a social singing group for people with communication difficulties as a result of neurological conditions, is an initiative of the Centre for Brain Research, and meets to practice weekly at the University, led by Music Therapists, with support from Speech and Language Therapists.

The choir has performed for various audiences since its inception three years ago, and now you can hear a selection of their work, in your very own home – a professionally produced video is available to view online at the Centre for Brain Research’s website.

Go to: http://www.fmhs.auckland.ac.nz/faculty/cbr/events/choir.aspx to view, and remember that anyone with a neurological condition is welcome to come along and join us in making music – it’s not called CeleBRation for nothing!