BRNZ Researchers Receive Neurological Foundation Grants

The Neurological Foundation has just awarded $1,489,471 of funding to neurological research projects, a repatriation fellowship, and several travel grants in their July 2018 grant round. The Neurological Foundation is the primary non-government funding body of neurological research in New Zealand, and also sponsors the Neurological Foundation Human Brain Bank and the Neurological Foundation Chair of Clinical Neurology research programme.

“It’s wonderful to confirm the approval of nearly $1.5m in funding for Projects, Small Project, Travel Grants and a Repatriation Fellowship in July,” says Rich Easton, Chief Executive of the Neurological Foundation.  

Several Brain Research New Zealand members received were successful in this funding round - read on to find out more about their projects.

PROJECT GRANTS

Prof Cliff Abraham, University of Otago: Characterising and enhancing the functionality of adult-born hippocampal neurons. $240,857

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

Prof John Dalrymple-Alford, University of Canterbury: An optogenetic dissection of the extended hippocampal memory system. $211,533

The anterior thalamic nuclei (ATN) is a small region at the centre of our brain that is critical for memory. Memory failure in stroke, alcohol addiction, perinatal oxygen deprivation, and Alzheimer dementia involve ATN injury or dysfunction. The ATN’s neural connections make it ideally placed to orchestrate other brain structures that create new memories. At present, how the ATN influences other memory-related brain structures is unknown. This project is the first direct test of this fundamental question; it uses cutting-edge neuroscience techniques and a bold new experimental design. The answer will support development of future treatment strategies for memory disorders.

Dr Ailsa McGregor, University of Otago: Investigating the anti-inflammatory effects of novel curcumin analogues in stroke. $197,195

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 be easily translated 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.

Dr Rebekah Blakemore, University of Otago: Understanding the role of dopamine in stress-induced motor deficits in Parkinson's disease. $168,190

We have recently demonstrated that emotional stress can worsen the motor impairments of individuals with Parkinson’s disease (PD). These findings are consistent with previous studies in animal models of PD, however it remains unclear how stress disrupts the control of movement and alters dopamine in the brain. This study will build on our earlier research by investigating changes in brain activity (using functional brain imaging) that are associated with impaired movement during stress in people with PD. Understanding the impact of acute stress on movement control may inform development of emotion-movement interventions to improve motor function in people with PD.

SMALL PROJECT GRANTS

Dr Amy McCaughey-Champan, University of Auckland: Investigating the use of 3D matrices to enhance the survival and differentiation of directly reprogrammed neural precursor cells. $14,945

Cell replacement therapy has huge potential for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. However, one of the limitations hindering the advance of cell replacement therapy to the clinic is the poor survival and maturation of the cells following transplantation into the brain. This study will investigate whether we can promote the survival and maturation of transplanted cells by encapsulating them in a supportive 3-dimensional matrix. A successful outcome will progress the use of cell replacement therapy to the clinic.

Dr Denise Taylor, Auckland University of Technology: Spatial navigation in a virtual world. $14,490

Navigation in the real world requires continuously updated information from the vestibular system about the person’s movement in 3-D space, alongside the use of visual information and spatial memory. The hippocampus is an important structure for spatial memory and a strong link between the vestibular system, the hippocampus and spatial memory/navigation in rodents and in humans has been demonstrated. Vestibular system deterioration and spatial memory loss independently result in atrophy of the hippocampus. There are currently no interventions in clinical practice that address this interaction between the vestibular system, the hippocampus and spatial memory in patients with vestibular disorders nor in patients with cognitive spatial disorders associated with mild cognitive impairment. Our objective is to develop a dynamic virtual reality assessment and intervention, in which the person physically moves, that can be used to assess and provide rehabilitation for spatial memory and navigation in people with vestibular disorders and those with mild cognitive impairment.

Dr Kevin Lee, University of Auckland: Establishing adult human neocortical organotypic brain slice culture using human  choroid plexus-conditioned media. $14,240

The human brain and its neurological diseases are best studied in living human brain cells. The key to growing viable adult human brain cells is to provide these cells with the same physiological environment found in the human brain. By using the medium generated by the adult human choroid plexus (hCP), a tissue that produces the fluid crucial for brain development and health, we will establish a novel culture protocol to grow adult human brain slices in a dish. Our ultimate goal is to use these living human brain cells to further our understanding and develop treatments for neurological disorders.

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