Grants a delight to researchers

14/12/2009
Otago Daily Times

University of Otago researchers are bringing to New Zealand a new scientific technique using light pulses to study brain cells, which could help pave the way for new treatments for Parkinson's disease.

This research, led by Otago physiology research fellow Dr Louise Parr-Brownlie, has been boosted by a $191,442 project grant from the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand.

Dr Parr-Brownlie was "absolutely ecstatic" to gain the funding and said that Parkinson's disease was expected to pose growing challenges as New Zealand's population continued to age.

She is one of several Otago University scientists to have gained nearly $450,000 in project grants and other support from the foundation in its latest funding round.

Parkinson's disease is a movement disorder caused by loss of dopamine in the brain.

To fully understand the biological basis of the disease, researchers need to know what effect the lack of dopamine has on the brain circuits controlling movement.

Dr Parr-Brownlie said the new research method, using light pulses, would help to gain critical information about changes taking place in the motor thalmus, a key part of the motor control circuit.

Research results could help improve current treatments or guide the development of new treatments, researchers said.

Physiologist Associate Prof Brian Hyland and biochemist Dr Stephanie Hughes are co-investigators in the project, undertaken through the university's Brain Health and Repair Research Centre.

Dr Hughes is also a co-investigator in a Lincoln University-led project developing a gene therapy for Batten disease.

Batten disease is a devastating neurodegenerative condition in children.

Lisa Smith, an Otago doctoral student in the anatomy and structural biology department, has also gained a Miller Postgraduate Scholarship, valued at $105,483, through the foundation to support her studies into dopamine receptors in the brain, and Parkinson's disease.

Dr Shakila Rizwan, of anatomy, has received a Philip Wrightson Postdoctoral Fellowship ($136,854) for her study into potential epilepsy treatments.

She will investigate developing a new treatment strategy for delivering seizure-suppressing inhibitory neurochemicals to the part of the brain where the seizures originate.

Dr Jonathan Shemmell, of the university School of Physical Education, gained a small project grant of $9906 for research to improve understanding of the brain circuits responsible for postural control.

Psychology honours student Max Major received a $4000 Summer Studentship from the Foundation for his project on aspects of motor inhibition in autism.