Centre for Brain Research wins grants

16 December 2013

The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand, the primary non-government sponsor of neurological research in New Zealand, has announced that funding of $1,200,000 for neurological research has been approved in its December 2013 grant round.  Below are listed the grant recipients from the Centre for Brain Research; scientists and a leading clinician.

The Inaugural 2013 Neurological Foundation Gillespie Postgraduate Scholarship

An annual scholarship award, is named for Peter and Wendy Gillespie who are dedicated to endowing bright young New Zealanders into a neurological research career.

Mandana Ghodratipour

Centre for Brain Research, The University of Auckland

Supervisor: Associate Professor Bronwen Connor

Use of direct reprogramming to model Huntington’s disease

The Neurological Foundation’s first Gillespie Postgraduate Scholar, Ms Ghodratipour is fascinated by the topic of cell reprogramming (the process of transforming a particular cell type into a different cell type), and its applications for the study of Huntington’s disease (HD).

HD is a genetic neurological disorder characterised by progressive loss of specific brain cells with devastating neurological consequences. The molecular mechanisms that drive cell death in HD are poorly understood, and as a consequence current therapies only alleviate some clinical symptoms and no cure is available. This project aims to establish a new platform for studying HD by reprogramming skin cells obtained from HD patients directly into the brain cells that are lost in the disease. This cell model of HD will provide a critical disease-specific tool for understanding the disorder at a molecular and cellular level. The long term aim is to use the model to develop treatments for HD.

2013 Neurological Foundation W & B Miller Postgraduate Scholarships

Tania Fowke

Department of Physiology, The University of Auckland

Supervisor: Dr Justin Dean

The role of hylauronan and perineuronal nets in preterm brain injury

Ms Tania Fowke has a particular interest in the developmental and cognitive impairments which occur following preterm brain injury and potential treatments for these deficits.

Despite increased survival of preterm babies with improved hospital care, they exhibit high rates of learning/memory problems in later life. Evidence suggests these deficits are partly caused by impaired growth of neuronal cell branches resulting from low blood flow to the brain (ischemia). However, how ischemia affects neuronal development is not known. There is evidence that neurons produce specialised structures called perineuronal nets (PNNs), which are important for neuronal development. Ms Fowke will determine whether preterm ischemia causes disruption to these structures, and the mechanisms by which this may alter neuronal growth and function. This will help in understanding the causes of cognitive deficits affecting preterm infants.

Amy McCaughey-Chapman

Centre for Brain Research, The University of Auckland

Supervisors: Associate Professor Bronwen Connor and Associate Professor John Reynolds

Optimising the transplantation of induced neural precursor cells for Parkinson’s disease

Ms Amy McCaughey-Chapman moved from France with her family six years ago. She completed her final two years of high school in New Zealand and furthered her interest in mathematics and science. She fell in love with the brain sitting in her first year lectures at the University of Auckland when Professor Richard Faull took her class through the exciting journey of human brain anatomy. Ms McCaughey-Chapman has since mapped out her career desires which include developing her research interests in somatic cell reprogramming and effective drug development for neurodegenerative diseases.

Ms McCaughey-Chapman will progress an exciting research area in Associate Professor Bronwen Connor’s human brain stem cell laboratory, with a focus on a Parkinson’s disease model. Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a movement disorder caused by the death of dopamine cells in the brain. Scientists globally have investigated the transplantation of dopamine-producing cells into PD patients’ brains. Associate Professor’s laboratory recently made worldwide news headlines with ground-breaking research that demonstrated the ability to generate immature dopamine neurons directly from adult human skin; a strategy called direct reprogramming. This strategy has the potential to generate dopamine cells from the patient’s own skin for brain cell replacement. Ms McCaughey-Chapman’s project aims to optimise the transplantation of directly reprogrammed dopaminergic neurons using a model of PD with future therapeutic applications in mind.


Professor Louise Nicholson

Centre for Brain Research, The University of Auckland


A model for intervention in Huntington’s disease

Huntington’s disease (HD) is a devastating genetic neurological disorder which results in the death of specific cells in a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus. Very close by lie the lateral ventricles whose subventricular lining produces new brain cells. There is potential for these new cells to be directed to replace the damaged cells in the caudate nucleus of patient with HD. Professor Nicholson has recently identified a new receptor in human HD brains which may be involved in this process and the aim of this project is to see if these results are replicated in an animal model of HD.  This animal model could then be used for functional studies leading to identification of intervention strategies to halt the progression of this devastating disease.

Dr Benjamin Thompson

Department of Optometry and Vision Science, The University of Auckland


Understanding and treating deprivation amblyopia

A childhood cataract can cause the brain to process information from the eyes incorrectly, resulting in a loss of vision that persists after the cataract is removed. This loss of vision is known as deprivation amblyopia (lazy eye). In this project, Dr Thompson aims to determine the changes within the brain that cause deprivation amblyopia and to test a new treatment that may improve vision in children with this problem. If this treatment is effective, the principle on which it is based may be relevant to a range of neurological conditions in which healthy brain cells have been deprived of input.

Dr Cathy Stinear

Brain Recovery Clinic, The University of Auckland


HARTS: Hand and Arm Recovery Trajectory after Stroke

Stroke is a leading cause of disability and currently affects more than 45,000 New Zealanders. Recovering hand and arm function is essential for regaining independence in activities of daily living, and being able to return to work and family roles. The rate of recovery is greatest within the first three months after stroke, but little is known about the longer-term recovery trajectory. This project will be the first to characterise recovery of hand and arm movement in patients from the time of stroke until two years post-stroke. Dr Stinear’s project will determine if the level of impairment at three months post-stroke can predict whether recovery long-term will reflect a virtuous circle of improvement or a vicious circle of deterioration. This knowledge can then be used to decide whether an individual patient has further potential to benefit from therapy two years or more post-stroke.

Dr Trecia Wouldes

Department of Psychological Medicine, The University of Auckland


Prenatal methamphetamine exposure and executive function in childhood

Methamphetamine or “P” use during pregnancy is a serious public health problem in New Zealand. The Infant Development, Environment and Lifestyle (IDEAL) Study is the only prospective, longitudinal study worldwide of prenatal methamphetamine exposure and child outcomes, and comprises four US sites and one in New Zealand. This project will implement Phase II of the New Zealand IDEAL study, a follow-up at 6.5 years of age, and will examine the behaviour and development of 110 children exposed to methamphetamine prenatally and a cohort of comparison children early in their formal schooling. This study could lead to the early identification of children most at risk of ongoing health problems, poor educational achievement and neurological disorders that have been linked to parental substance abuse. These disorders include ADHD, conduct disorder and substance abuse disorder.

Dr Peter Bergin

Neurology Department, Auckland City Hospital, Auckland District Health Board


In the July 2009 grant round, the Neurological Foundation approved funding for Dr Peter Bergin’s international collaborative pilot study which set up an internet-based platform to recruit patients for epilepsy drug trials. The platform, called EpiNet, can be accessed by adult and paediatric neurologists from anywhere in the world.

In the July 2011 grant round, the Neurological Foundation approved funding for a second study phase to enable an international collaboration of epileptologists to validate both the EpiNet study group and the EpiNet platform before undertaking clinical trials.

Randomised controlled trials of patients with new onset epilepsy; EpiNet -First

This study encompasses a series of four randomised controlled trials (EpiNet- First trials) to determine which of several widely used anti-epileptic drugs (levetiracetam, carbamazepine, lamotrigine and sodium valproate) is most effective as monotherapy (one treatment, vs polytherapy which involves multiple drugs) in patients with recently diagnosed and previously untreated epilepsy. The primary endpoint will be 12 continuous months free from seizures. The trials will be conducted using EpiNet and will involve several New Zealand clinicians as well as neurologists from around the world.

For more information contact;

Andrea Lee, Communications and Liaison Manager

Centre for Brain Research

The University of Auckland

Email: andrea.lee@auckland.ac.nz

Phone + 64 9 923 1913 or mobile +64 21 0427 445