Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu

Otago scientists win neurological research funding

Trees flowering on campus

Wednesday 5 December 2012 2:16pm

Three University of Otago scientists have received nearly $300,000 of funding to support their world-class brain-related research in the latest Neurological Foundation grant round.

Department of Psychology researcher Professor Cliff Abraham has been awarded a grant of over $200,000 to further his internationally leading Alzheimer's disease research. Understanding the processes involved in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's is critical in order to identify targets for drug therapies.

Professor Abraham's project will investigate the role of astrocytes, a non-neuronal brain cell, in controlling memory-related changes in the brain, and whether this regulation is impaired in a laboratory model of Alzheimer's disease. Understanding this process may help to identify new targets for drug interventions to rescue impaired memory and cognition.

Laura Boddington has gained a Neurological Foundation Postgraduate Scholarship to support PhD study into whether a type of brain stimulation that uses the brain's own natural 'theta' rhythms can improve recovery after stroke. She will start her PhD in the Department of Anatomy in February.

Department of Pathology researcher Dr Julia Horsfield is being funded for a project investigating whether cohesin, a protein regulating cell division, also influences the ability of a neuron to recognise itself. Self-recognition is vital to ensuring that these cells only attempt to make functional connections with other neurons rather than looping back on themselves.

Announcing the new funding, Neurological Foundation Executive Director Max Ritchie said: "This grant round showcases the breadth of world-class neurological research being carried out at universities, research institutions and hospitals across New Zealand. It's exciting for us to be able to sponsor so much innovative, high-quality research across such diverse and important areas of neurological disease."

The Neurological Foundation is the primary non-government sponsor of neurological research in New Zealand.

For more information, visit

Descriptions of research

Astrocyte-neuron communication in a novel homeostatic form of metaplasticity

Professor Cliff Abraham
Department of Psychology
University of Otago

Learning occurs through changing the strength of synaptic connections between nerve cells in the brain. The nervous system is made up of billions of these nerve cells, and effective communication between the cells is crucial to the normal functioning of the central and peripheral nervous systems. Most neuronal cells communicate via synapses, and the process through which this information is communicated is called synaptic transmission. This process is impaired in neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

Professor Abraham's study will investigate the role of astrocytes, a non-neuronal brain cell, in controlling memory-related changes in synaptic transmission. This regulation may be important for normal learning and memory, and its alteration may contribute to cognitive impairments seen in many neurological diseases. The study will investigate whether these regulatory mechanisms are impaired in a laboratory model of Alzheimer's disease. Understanding these processes may help identify new molecular targets for therapeutic interventions to rescue impaired memory and cognition.

Modulating interhemispheric inhibition to improve functional recovery after stroke

Laura Boddington
Department of Anatomy
University of Otago

Stroke affects approximately 20 New Zealanders each day and is the leading cause of adult disability in the developed world. A key objective of post-stroke rehabilitation is the recovery of movement. Recent Neurological Foundation-funded research using Theta Burst Stimulation (low voltage electrical stimulation) has shown promise as a therapy for stroke and suggests that stimulating the brain with its own natural 'theta' rhythms can enhance rehabilitation and recovery after a stroke. Ms Boddington's research will assess the effects of theta-like stimulation on single brain cells in the control of movement areas of the brain after stroke. It will also determine the most effective timing for the application of stimulation after stroke onset to maximise functional improvement.

Exploring a novel mechanism of neuronal pathfinding and self-recognition

Dr Julia Horsfield
Department of Pathology
University of Otago

Protocadherins are proteins that are expressed on the surface of a neuron and the unique combination of different forms of protocadherin act like a barcode to give each neuron its own identity. During brain development, when a neuron sends out an axon to make a functional connection, it needs to make sure the connection is with another neuron rather than a connection with itself, so it uses this protocadherin barcode to distinguish between self and non-self. Production of the protocadherin proteins is regulated by another protein called cohesin. This raises the possibility that cohesin, which also regulates cell division, might also influence neuron pathfinding and self-recognition. This study will investigate this intriguing new potential function of cohesin. Dr Horsfield's laboratory uses zebrafish as a model to understand the early development of human disease. Zebrafish embryos develop externally in transparent eggshells, making it possible to watch them develop through a microscope over a couple of days. In this project, the scientists will use novel fluorescent marking techniques to see what happens to neuronal pathfinding and connectivity when cohesin function is disrupted during development.