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Neurological Foundation awards grants to Otago scientists

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Thursday, 11 December 2014 3:47pm

Brain-scan

Three University of Otago scientists and a PhD graduate have been awarded a total of $471,944 to support their brain research in the Neurological Foundation’s December funding round announced today.

Department of Psychology PhD graduate Dr Robert Munn has been awarded the 2014 Neurological Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, while Dr Stephanie Hughes (Biochemistry), Dr Margaret Ryan (Anatomy and Biochemistry) and Associate Professor Greg Anderson (Anatomy) each received project grants.

Their research topics relate to memory deficits, Alzheimer’s, Batten disease and stress disorders.

Dr Robert Munn’s $153,249 award will enable him to continue his memory research at Stanford University under the supervision of a leading learning and memory researcher, Assistant Professor Lisa Giacomo. His long-term goal is to gain a permanent position as an independent researcher at a New Zealand university.

Otago Psychology Professor David Bilkey, who was Dr Munn’s doctoral advisor, says “it is wonderful to hear that Rob has received this award. Support from the Neurological Foundation is so important in assisting in the development of our young neuroscientists.”

Professor Bilkey says the project that Dr Munn is working on will provide important new information about how the brain represents the spatial environment and stores this information in memory.

“This is basic research aimed at developing knowledge about brain function, but it is also relevant to a number of disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, where one of the symptoms is spatial disorientation. Rob’s work is using cutting edge techniques and the Neurological Foundation’s support will allow him to develop these skills fully such that he can continue to advance and apply them to neurological disorders.”

Dr Stephanie Hughes receives $12,000 for a study titled “Validation of a novel drug target in CLN5 Batten disease”.

Batten disease refers to a group of inherited neurological diseases of childhood that result in blindness, seizures, movement and cognitive defects, and ultimately premature death. There are no effective treatments.

Dr Hughes’ laboratory has recently identified a new candidate drug for the treatment of one genetic form of Batten disease, and in this study will test this drug in a second genetic form. These results will determine whether the drug is more generally applicable to multiple forms of Batten disease.

Dr Margaret Ryan has been awarded $186,421 for her project named “Secreted amyloid precursor protein alpha: furthering its therapeutic potential”.


Dr Ryan’s team has found that the protein known as secreted amyloid precursor protein alpha has therapeutic potential for treating Alzheimer’s disease, as it can protect against learning and memory loss in an Alzheimer’s disease model.

In this project, Dr Ryan’s team aims to understand the critical biological processes harnessed by this protein and discover if the effects of protein treatment can be detected in blood plasma, thus further developing its therapeutic potential.

Associate Professor Greg Anderson receives $120,274 for a study titled “RFRP-3-induced stress disorders and the effects of a novel therapeutic antagonist”

Anxiety disorders are among the most prevalent psychiatric conditions, with a combined lifetime prevalence of nearly 17% and high rates of associated disorders such as depression and obsessive compulsive behaviour. Although treatments such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and drug therapies exist, these are frequently not effective or well-tolerated.

Associate Professor Anderson’s team has recently discovered that treatment with a molecule called RFRP-3 induces anxious behaviour and acute stress responses in rats, and blocking its receptor with a specific drug overcomes these responses. This study will determine if RFRP-3 can be proven to be a significant contributor to such stress-related disorders and if so, it would represent an entirely new avenue for the development of treatments.

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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