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Wednesday 23 March 2022 11:42am

One in five New Zealanders experience the effects of neurological disease and disorders across their lifespan, with many of these diseases being extremely rare, and current treatment options often scarce or non-existent.

One of these currently untreatable neurodegenerative diseases is spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1).

Emma Deeney image
Emma Deeney.

“From the age of 40, these people start to notice they are having difficulty with daily tasks. It progresses to the point where these people become wheelchair-bound, have breathing difficulties and leads to death of the patient within about 10 years of initial symptoms”, says BHRC researcher Emma Deeney.

Emma is based in the Hughes and Empson Labs at the University of Otago, focusing specifically on SCA1, and is currently investigating how exercise can be used as a therapeutic treatment. She is also the recipient of the 2022 BHRC Scholarship.

It's known that exercise is beneficial for several neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's, but what it actually does to the brain and how it is able to provide therapeutic benefits is not entirely understood. Emma's research aims to explore potential mechanisms that allow patients to experience therapeutic benefits from exercise.

In the later stages of many neurodegenerative diseases, patients are unable to exercise, so Emma hopes that uncovering some of these exercise-induced mechanisms will allow for new pharmaceutical treatments to be developed.

“Being able to understand the disease more so we can find treatments to help these people is the ultimate goal.”

One aspect being explored in Emma's research is BDNF, or “brain derived neurotrophic factor” which is a protein that is involved in keeping your brain cells alive and healthy. BDNF levels are reduced in the brain of patients with SCA1, as well as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's disease. It is well-established that exercise can increase BDNF levels, yet BDNF levels plateau following several days of exercise – why this happens and what this means for BDNF as a treatment option needs further investigation.

“We also don't know where in the brain this BDNF is coming from, so we need to figure out what is happening and what mechanisms it's happening through, in order to develop new treatments”, says Emma. We also want future treatments to be delivered in the least invasive way possible. Exercise is favoured by most patients which is why it was chosen.

“The hope is the findings from my PhD will identify mechanisms through which exercise provides therapeutic benefits to SCA1 patients and will help develop BDNF treatments that may be given orally for patients where exercise is unfeasible”.

Emma was awarded a University of Otago PhD scholarship which allowed her to work for three years on her research, which ended in 2021. Emma was awarded the 2022 BHRC Scholarship to allow her the funding to focus on her research and PhD thesis which she is planning to submit this year.

And what lies beyond that for Emma?

“I want to investigate more mechanisms where exercise is beneficial, and determine whether the mechanisms through which exercise is working are the same in other degenerative diseases. SCA1 is caused by a mutation in a specific gene. When this same mutation occurs in different genes it can cause one of at least nine other degenerative diseases, Huntington's disease is one of these. For this reason, the therapeutic benefits of exercise may work through mechanisms shared between these diseases”.

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