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Brain Awareness Week begins

Friday 6 March 2020 12:24pm

sophie-image
Sophie Mathiesen, a PhD candidate in the University's Brain Health Research Centre, tells her brain health story ahead of Brain Awareness Week which begins tomorrow.

Brain Awareness Week starts this weekend. Otago’s very own Brain Health Research Centre brings research together from across departments, and during Brain Awareness Week there are many opportunities to get involved and learn more.

At the Otago Museum tomorrow, the Brain Health Research Centre’s giant 3D inflatable brain will be on display along with other fun activities including tests of brain-deceiving images and optical illusions run by the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand. At 10am Associate Professor Liana Machado will discuss cognitive functioning and how we can maintain it as we age, including the results of her recent stair climbing studies. Please visit the Otago Museum website for other events and talks planned for Brain Awareness Week.

Sophie Mathiesen’s PhD research as part of the Brain Health Research Centre is an example of the great work taking place in the Centre. Last year Sophie attended the huge Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago along with 32,000 others. Her poster abstract on gene therapy was chosen for a press conference, and as the only female and only student, Sophie presented to the media in the company of four other established researchers. Sophie said to be the only female student given the opportunity to speak at this level was an amazing privilege.

Sophie Mathiesen and Alzheimer's Disease research

After first becoming interested in Alzheimer’s during my neuroscience and psychology degrees, I’m now one of a large group of Otago researchers investigating ways to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

My naïve undergraduate self never expected how truly complicated a lumpy pink blob (otherwise known as the brain) could be, but it does explain why almost 120 years since Alzheimer’s was first described, we still don’t have any effective treatments.

One major issue to overcome when treating brain disease is that for many therapies to work, they must be injected directly into the brain, which is too resource-intensive for treating the huge population with Alzheimer’s.

My PhD project is trying to solve this by investigating viruses that can get from the bloodstream into the brain, and could therefore be given to patients by a simple injection into a vein. While using viruses might sound scary, these viruses are modified to help rather than harm, and may provide a one-off treatment that lasts for many years that will be a fantastic alternative to taking medications.

Last year I was selected to present my research on modified viruses in a media press conference at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago, where I spoke alongside four lead male scientists in the field. To be the only female student given the opportunity to speak at this level was an amazing privilege, but it also reflected the support and faith my supervisors Professor Cliff Abraham and Associate Professor Stephanie Hughes, both of the Brain Health Research Centre, have in me.

Women still represent the minority in STEM fields, so I think it’s essential that we also have faith in ourselves when we’re presented with exciting opportunities.

I think my research being selected is testament to how exciting these viruses are in terms of advancing our ability to treat neurological and other diseases that could benefit from this type of therapy, and how they spark hope that a cure for Alzheimer’s is not too far away.