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BHRC researchers gain NFNZ funding

Friday 3 August 2018 10:31am

Four of the five University of Otago researchers who received some of the $1.5 million in funding recently awarded by the Neurological Foundation are members of the Brain Health Research Centre.

Chief executive of the Neurological Foundation Rich Easton says he is pleased to recently confirm the approval of nearly $1.5 million in funding for projects, travel grants and a fellowship.

“This was one of our largest ever grant rounds, with the funds going to support research into diseases and disorders of the brain, offering hope to 1 in 5 New Zealanders impacted by more than 1000 different conditions.”

Dr Max BerryMax Berry image

Senior Lecturer in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Otago, Wellington, Dr Max Berry, has been awarded $180,120 by the foundation to investigate the use of neurosteroid analogue therapy which could potentially prevent behavioural and neurodevelopmental disorders developing in children and adolescents who are born prematurely.

Dr Berry’s research interest focuses on investigating the impact of preterm birth on the person’s long-term health.

“Despite all best efforts prem babies still have higher rates of learning and developmental problems compared to children born at full term,” Dr Berry explains.

“We want to try and reduce this gap so that children thrive, irrespective of their gestational age.”

Research Dr Berry has undertaken previously shows that hormones a baby would have been exposed to had it stayed in the womb until full term, help with brain development. When babies are born early, they miss out on these vital hormones.

“We are trying to find ways to replace the beneficial effects of these hormones by giving a replacement therapy in the time between preterm birth and the due date.”

Dr Berry says she and her team are “absolutely delighted” to have the support of the Neurological Foundation to help them carry out the research.

“It’s so important that these preterm babies don’t suffer health and wellbeing disadvantage through the rest of their lives – we want to develop new therapies so this on-going health disparity is prevented.”

The other three projects are:

Professor Cliff Abraham
Professor Cliff Abraham from the Department of Psychology received $240,857 to continue his investigations into the birth of new nerve cells in the adult brain.
Characterising and enhancing the functionality of adult-born hippocampal neurons
The prevalence of dementia is increasing at an alarming rate. Finding ways to reduce memory impairments in dementia and other memory disorders is thus an urgent need in neurology. The hippocampus is a brain structure critical for memory, but is commonly affected in neurological disorders. This structure is unique in being able to generate new neurons throughout life. In this project, we aim to understand the functional capability of these adult-born cells and how it changes across their life-course, using genetic and imaging technologies. We will also determine whether environmental interventions can increase the functionality of this key cell type. These findings may help identify how cognitive stimulation and exercise help stave off cognitive decline in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, in which neurogenesis and memory are impaired.

Dr Ailsa McGregor
Senior Lecturer in clinical pharmacy Dr Ailsa McGregor, from the School of Pharmacy received $197,195 for her research focusing on pharmacological enhancement of motor recovery after stroke.
Investigating the anti-inflammatory effects of novel curcumin analogues in stroke
The naturally occurring polyphenol, curcumin has been intensively investigated as a potential therapy for malignant and inflammatory diseases. More recently, curcumin has been shown to prevent brain damage during stroke. We will investigate whether a series of novel and highly potent curcumin analogues can also reduce brain inflammation and improve functional recovery in an experimental stroke model. This work will provide supporting evidence to develop a pharmacological therapy which could easily translate to the clinical setting. This approach has significant implications for surviving stroke patients who arrive late to hospital and are not suitable for clot-buster therapy.

Professor David Bilkey
Professor David Bilkey from the Department of Psychology received $14,925 for his investigations into schizophrenia.
Hippocampal dysfunction underlying disrupted future thinking in neurological disorders
Schizophrenia is a disorder of brain function, characterised by a number of symptoms, including deficits in decision-making. We hypothesise that these deficits are a result of a disturbance in the brain activity in the hippocampus that underlies our ability to simulate the future. We propose to test this hypothesis by determining whether characteristic neuron burst firing events that are involved in mental simulations of the future are disordered in a model of the disease. This project can potentially explain some of the executive function deficits observed in schizophrenia and also provide a preclinical biomarker that could be targeted for therapy.