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Otago researchers gain Neurological Foundation funding

Clocktower from the Leith

Monday 7 July 2014 3:01pm


Four University of Otago brain researchers have gained project grants in the July Neurological Foundation to pursue their innovative studies. Additionally, an Otago neuroscience PhD graduate was awarded the Foundation’s repatriation fellowship to return to New Zealand and the University to further her Parkinson’s disease research.

The four project grants total $496,487 and go to Dr Beulah Leitch (Anatomy), Dr Liana Machado (Psychology), Dr Louise Parr-Brownlie (Anatomy) and Dr Ping Liu (Anatomy). Three projects involve studying brain mechanisms implicated in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia, respectively. Another project will investigate whether non-invasive brain stimulation can improve eye movement control in older people.

Dr Rebekah Blakemore’s 2014 Neurological Foundation Repatriation Fellowship, valued at $98,794, allows her to return from a postdoctoral position in Switzerland to continue research under the supervision of Parkinson’s disease authority Professor Tim Anderson at the University of Otago, Christchurch.

Dr Blakemore intends to become a leader in the field of Affective and Movement Neuroscience and to establish her own Movement Neuroscience research programme in New Zealand.

Otago’s recipients in the July funding round:

Neurological Foundation Repatriation Fellowship:

Repatriation Fellowships are intended to support the repatriation of outstanding young researchers who have recently completed postdoctoral studies outside New Zealand and who propose to return to New Zealand and conduct research in scientific fields of relevance to the Neurological Foundation.

Dr Rebekah Blakemore (University of Otago, Christchurch)

Supervisors: Professor Tim Anderson and Dr Michael MacAskill

Returning from a Postdoctoral Research Fellow position at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

Can acute emotional stress impair motor function in individuals with Parkinson’s disease? The effect of effective state on precision-grip force control

The aim of Dr Blakemore’s research, on her return to New Zealand, is to investigate the role that emotional stress may play in impairing the motor (movement) function of individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD). There is a growing body of literature supporting the long-held notion that stress profoundly affects motor behaviour and may worsen the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (PD). However, the role that stress may play in modulating motor symptoms of individuals with PD remains unknown. Dr Blakemore will investigate how acute emotional stress alters grip force control and muscle activity in PD patients and healthy individuals. Given that stress is an important risk factor for depression and almost half of PD patients experience depression, understanding the impact of stress on motor behaviour may inform development of emotion-movement interventions to improve motor function in Parkinson’s disease.

Project grants:

Dr Beulah Leitch (Anatomy, University of Otago)

Ultrastructural identification of newly synthesised receptor proteins at activated synapses

A synapse is a structure in the brain that allows a neuron (nerve cell) to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron. The synapse plays a critical role in memory, and specific proteins are essential for the changes in the strength of synaptic signalling that underlie memories and learning. Recent evidence suggests that new proteins may be synthesised in another part of the neuron and incorporated into synapses, and that loss of this process may be linked to human disorders associated with cognitive deficits. Dr Leith’s study aims to identify, with cutting-edge technology, newly synthesised proteins at stimulated synapses, and to investigate if altered local protein synthesis contributes to the synaptic dysfunction that underlies various brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Liana Machado (Psychology, University of Otago)

Roles of frontal cortex subregions in controlling eye movements: Can transcranial direct current stimulation improve eye movement control in older populations?

Healthy ageing is associated with difficulties controlling the eye movement system, particularly when a high level of strategic control is required, and neurological disease can exacerbate these difficulties. Exciting new research shows that a non-invasive brain stimulation technique, transcranial direct current stimulation, applied over the frontal cortex region of the brain, can improve eye movement control in young adults. Dr Machado’s research aims to first determine the most effective brain stimulation protocol for improving eye movement control, and then to test whether healthy older adults can also benefit. If so, future research will test the efficacy of the new brain stimulation protocol in patients with neurological disorders.

Dr Louise Parr-Brownlie (Anatomy, University of Otago)

Characterising basal ganglia synapses onto motor thalamus neurons in health and Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder caused by the loss of dopamine cells in the brain. To fully understand the biological basis of parkinsonism, the effect of the lack of dopamine to connections in brain circuits that control movement needs to be identified. Using a model of Parkinson’s disease, Dr Parr-Brownlie will combine gene therapy and electron microscopy (a high resolution imaging technique) to identify the anatomical characteristics of the connection between the basal ganglia and motor thalamus in healthy brains, and investigate changes that occur in this region in parkinsonian brains. Results will improve our understanding of the causes of Parkinson’s disease and may highlight new ways to treat the disease.

Dr Ping Liu (Anatomy, University of Otago)

Arginine metabolism and schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a debilitating chronic mental disorder and the exact cause is poorly understood. An amino acid called L-arginine may be involved in the development of schizophrenia. Dr Liu’s project involves both human and animal work to investigate how this amino acid changes in schizophrenic brains, and the processes involved that lead to prolonged behavioural and neurochemical changes. This information will enhance the understanding of the cause of schizophrenia and may lead to the development of new preventative strategies or treatments for schizophrenia.

About the Neurological Foundation:

The Neurological Foundation is an independent body and charitable trust and its funding has facilitated many of New Zealand’s top neuroscientists’ pioneering breakthroughs. Without the ongoing support of individual New Zealanders, the Foundation could not commit to progressing research to the high level that it does. The Neurological Foundation receives no government funding.

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