Neuroscience News Autumn 2013 section

Aleks Brumby Scholarship
Daniel Czech, a third-year undergraduate student from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, became the second recipient of the Aleks Brumby Summer Research Scholarship.

Aleks Brumby Scholarship

 Aleks Brumby Scholarship

Daniel Czech, a third-year undergraduate student from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, became the second recipient of the Aleks Brumby Summer Research Scholarship.

The $1500 scholarship supports the student ranked highest in academic merit and research potential during a 10-week research internship at QBI. 

Daniel undertook his research project in the computational neuroscience laboratory under the supervision of Professor Geoffrey Goodhill.

As a Mechatronic Engineering student, Daniel’s project “Neural coding in the visual system” linked mathematics and neuroscience – two of his key interests. 

As part of Daniel’s project, zebrafish were injected with a chemical that lights up when neurons are active. 

Zebrafish are a particularly useful model organism to study the brain in this manner, as their skin is transparent at the larval stage.

The fish were shown a series of spots in different positions on a screen while their brain was videoed. 

Once recorded, the videos need to be analysed to be able to decode where the fish was looking at when the neurons fire in a particular pattern.

Daniel successfully designed a computer program that allows for automatic detection, making the process more objective, easier and quicker for researchers in the laboratory. 

Although Daniel is uncertain what he will do after his undergraduate degree, he says that his experience at QBI over the summer was “exceptionally interesting”, and that he is seriously considering applying to study further at QBI.

Alzheimers may be diagnosed online
Alzheimers disease could be detected using a simple online test

Alzheimers may be diagnosed online

Alzheimer’s disease could be detected using a simple online test.

Alzheimer’s disease patients, known to show specific memory impairment, are currently diagnosed using a range of cognitive tests as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which can pinpoint the areas of brain degeneration, a symptom of the disease.

“One of the areas know to degenerate in Alzheimer’s disease is a region called the cholinergic basal forebrain, implicated in memory and attention. It has been unclear whether loss of function in this brain area causes the cognitive changes seen early in Alzheimer’s disease,” says Associate Professor Elizabeth Coulson, who coordinated the study.

The researchers examined the cognitive changes in rodent models with basal forebrain degeneration.

“Surprisingly, the mice behaved normally on most of the cognitive tests, however, on a recall navigation task akin to ‘dead reckoning’, the mice became disorientated,” Associate Professor Coulson said.

This demonstrated that recall navigation tasks rely heavily on cholinergic neurons.

Current Alzheimer’s disease treatments act to enhance the function of these cells but drugs work only as long as the cells are healthy.

“It is already known that Alzheimer’s disease patients, and even people with memory complaints, perform poorly on both real space and computerised recall navigation tasks,” says Associate Professor Coulson.

“The significance of our work is that by asking patients to perform these navigation tasks, doctors may be able to detect symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease much sooner and more cheaply than the MRI tests,” she said.

“We envision this test could also help to identify patients who would benefit from early administration of current Alzheimer’s disease treatments.”

The findings are currently being validated in humans by Associate Professor Coulson in collaboration with researchers from the Czech Republic, the team who developed the human recall navigation tasks.

Volunteers are asked to navigate a simple arena on a computer monitor touch screen and are, in some cases, required to have a brain MRI.

Associate Professor Coulson says the diagnostic tool could be in wide use as early as 2015.

She says that, to begin with, patients would be tested at a memory clinic but that the online nature of the examination means it could one day be undertaken at home.

CRC grant for autism
QBI will form part of a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) that has received $31 million from the Federal Government for work assisting Australians Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

CRC grant for autism

QBI will form part of a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) that has received $31 million from the Federal Government for work assisting Australians Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The CRC will be based at The University of Queensland and has three main aims to assist individuals living with ASD. These include ensuring that: (a) they have a definitive diagnosis at an early age that can be coupled with a targeted early intervention strategy; (b) they will be educated in an appropriate environment by skilled professionals; and (c) they will be given the best chance to find a meaningful and fulfilling place in society through higher education, employment and better opportunities for long-term social relationships.

QBI’s Associate Professor Charles Claudianos and Dr Alex Cristino join scientists from 12 different research groups and their work is expected to benefit the lives of more than 1 million Australians.

“Better diagnostic tools, allowing affected children to be identified during the early years of life will allow for prompt intervention when neural plasticity is greatest, promoting better cognitive and psychosocial outcomes for the individual, and associated benefits for family members and public health spending,” says Associate Professor Claudianos.

In establishing Australia’s (and the world’s) first national, cooperative research effort directed towards ASD, comes the implementation of a highly innovative “whole-of-life” research portfolio, and the assembly of some of the finest and most respected scientists in their relevant fields.

Clem Jones CJCADR Opening
Queensland Premier, the Honourable Campbell Newman MP, officially opened the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research (CJCADR) on 28 February 2013.

Clem Jones CJCADR Opening

 Image : Premier Campbell Newman congratulates Professor Perry Bartlett after unveiling the official plaque

Queensland Premier, the Honourable Campbell Newman MP, officially opened the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research (CJCADR) on 28 February.

Housed within the QBI building, CJCADR will address ageing dementia-related questions, as this disorder currently affects more than 321,600 Australians and is the country’s third leading cause of death after heart disease and stroke. 

Speaking at the launch, Premier Newman said dementia research was vitally important and congratulated all those involved in the establishment of the new centre.

“Research leads to better healthcare practices, less disease, and improvements to quality and longevity of life. It also helps to address the significant pressures facing the public health system,” he said.

Australia’s first and only facility focussed entirely on research into the prevention and treatment of dementia is headed by world-renowned neuroscientist Professor Jürgen Götz. 

QBI Director, Professor Perry Bartlett, who has overseen the establishment of the Centre, says the appointment of Professor Götz was a significant event in the development of CJCADR.

“A world-leader in Alzheimer’s disease research, Professor Götz has made several ground-breaking discoveries, including work published in the prestigious journals Science and Cell, which brought to light the molecular mechanisms underlying the loss of brain function in Alzheimer’s,” he said.

“His insights have been used toward developing new therapeutic approaches for dementia treatment, and we’re very privileged to have him leading our team of researchers.”

Along with early detection and preventative strategies, therapeutic intervention is key to minimising the social and economic impact of dementia in Australia.

“Without a significant medical breakthrough, the number of Australians living with dementia is expected to soar to almost 1 million by 2050,” says Professor Bartlett.

The CJCADR team has already made discoveries that are leading to the development of potential therapeutics to prevent onset, or slow the progression, of Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information about CJCADR and research developments to date, visit: www.qbi.uq.edu.au/cadr. 

(Image: Premier Campbell Newman congratulates Professor Perry Bartlett after unveiling the official plaque)

Directors Message Autumn 2013
I am delighted that after many years of planning we celebrated the opening of the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research (CADR) on 28 February.

Directors Message Autumn 2013

I am delighted that after many years of planning we celebrated the opening of the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research (CJCADR) on 28 February.

The Centre was named in recognition of the late Dr Clem Jones AO, whose prescient philanthropic donation directed toward supporting research to find a cure for brain damage and diseases such as dementia has underpinned CADR’s establishment. The Queensland Premier, the Honourable Campbell Newman MP, officially opened the Centre. His moving address highlighted how he, like many Australians, understands first-hand the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, and I appreciate his commitment to the belief that there is a cure to be found. I am also grateful to our other major donors: John T. Reid Charitable Trusts, The Helpful Foundation and G. James Pty Ltd, for their continuing support. The CADR team, under the leadership of the inaugural Director, Professor Jürgen Götz, has already made a number of significant discoveries, leading to the development of small compounds and antibodies with the potential to prevent disease onset or progression.

Associate Professor Elizabeth Coulson has recently made great progress in identifying changes in the Alzheimer’s diseased brain in a non-invasive way. She and her team have used a method of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) on a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease to identify early structural changes in an area of the brain known to deteriorate in the disease. They have also identified that degeneration in this area is associated with impaired ability in idiothetic navigation, and has been involved in the development of an online test to assess these same navigation abilities in humans. 

In other exciting news, the Federal Government has announced $31 million to support a new Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) focussed on Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Our congratulations to QBI’s Associate Professor Charles Claudianos who is part of the CRC and will be focussing on the genetic and biochemical profiling of people with ASD.

Professor Perry Bartlett FAA
Director, Queensland Brain Institute

MRI gains attention as a diagnostic tool for early Alzheimers detection
Early features of Alzheimers disease can now be detected using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

MRI gains attention as a diagnostic tool for early Alzheimers detection

 DTI image of mouse brain

Early features of Alzheimer’s disease can now be detected using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The study, conducted by PhD student Georg Kerbler in Associate Professor Elizabeth Coulson’s laboratory, used MRI to detect loss of basal forebrain cholinergic neurons – an early feature of Alzheimer’s disease.

The team used a method of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to detect changes in structural integrity and brain connectivity in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.

“The aim of this study was to determine whether earlier neurodegenerative changes in the basal forebrain could be detected using DTI in a rodent model,” says Associate Professor Coulson.

“By doing this, we were able to demonstrate that it might be possible to detect signs of Alzheimer’s onset, before a significant loss of basal forebrain cells was observed,” she said.

The Coulson laboratory is now further developing their methods by analysing human MRI scans.

Detecting degeneration of nerve cells ahead of cell loss gives greater opportunity for targeted intervention.

“If this method works in humans it could assist in patients being identified sooner, which would allow for earlier treatment,” says Associate Professor Coulson.

 “These findings provide increased support for using DTI and probabilistic tractography as non-invasive tools for diagnosing and/or monitoring the progression of conditions affecting the integrity of the basal forebrain cholinergic system in humans, including Alzheimer’s disease.”

Image: A DTI image of the brain of a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, by PhD student Georg Kerbler

Molecule key to sustaining brain communication
The molecule myosin VI has been found to have an important role in the communication between nerve cells in the brain.

Molecule key to sustaining brain communication

 The molecule myosin VI has been found to have an important role in the communication between nerve cells in the brain.

QBI’s Vanesa Tomatis, a PhD student in Associate Professor Frederic Meunier’s laboratory, discovered that myosin VI is integral to the process that allows neurons to pass on information to other neurons.

Tomatis’ work demonstrates that myosin VI is able to anchor secretory vesicles, which are at least 5,000 times greater in size, near their release site.

“By tethering and anchoring secretory granules, myosin VI helps to maintain an active pool of vesicles near the plasma membrane, which is key to sustaining communication between neuronal cells,” Associate Professor Meunier said.

Associate Professor Meunier and his team are now looking to understand how myosin VI manages to grab and hold vesicles through the use of super-resolution microscopy.

They hope the discovery will lead to new ways to reinstate or regulate neuronal communication in various brain disorders.

Older grandfathers pass on autism risk through generations
Men who have children at an older age are at a higher risk of having grandchildren with autism compared to younger grandfathers, according to new research.

Older grandfathers pass on autism risk through generations

DNA passed on through generations

Men who have children at an older age are at a higher risk of having grandchildren with autism compared to younger grandfathers, according to new research.

Collaborating with researchers from King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, QBI’s Professor John McGrath has shown that risk factors for autism may accumulate over generations.

The study found that the risk of autism in the grandchild increased with older paternal age.

Compared to men who had children when they were 20–24, men who had a daughter when they were 50 or older were 1.79 times more likely to have a grandchild with autism and those who had a son were 1.67 times more likely to have a grandchild with autism.

About one child in 160 is diagnosed with autism in Australia, with boys affected four times more than girls.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects people in very different ways: some are able to live relatively normal lives, while others will require a lifetime of specialist support.

People with ASD find it challenging to communicate with and relate to others, and making sense of the world around them is often difficult. 

Recent reports have suggested that the prevalence of ASD may be increasing internationally.

Autism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. 

Previous studies have shown that older paternal age is also a risk factor for autism in children: the risk is more than doubled in fathers aged 50 or older.

The mechanism behind this link is unknown but may be explained by mutations in the male sperm cells. Sperm cells divide over time, and on each division new mutations may be introduced.

Genetic mutations are common and do not always result in the child developing autism.

The new findings suggest that these ‘silent’ mutations are passed on to the otherwise healthy child, but may influence the risk of future generations developing autism.

It may be that genetic risk accumulates over generations or there may be a threshold of risk factors, and until the threshold is reached the disorder does not manifest.

PUBLICATIONS Autumn 2013
Selection of Publications for Autumn 2013

PUBLICATIONS Autumn 2013

Publications

Autumn 2013

SELECTION OF PUBLICATIONS

No researcher works in isolation.  The following publications highlight the collaborative efforts which are a hallmark of research at QBI. 

Blackmore, D. G., Vukovic, J., Waters, M. J. & Bartlett, P. F. (2012) GH mediates exercise-dependent activation of SVZ neural precursor cells in aged mice. PLoS ONE 7: e49912.

Kerbler, G. M., Hamlin, A. S., Pannek, K., Kurniawan, N. D., Keller, M. D., Rose, S. E. & Coulson, E. J. (2012) Diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging detection of basal forebrain cholinergic degeneration in a mouse model. NeuroImage 68: 133-141.

Kirszenblat, L., Neumann, B., Coakley, S. & Hilliard, M. A. (2012) A dominant mutation in MEC-7/β-tubulin affects axon development and regeneration in C. elegans neurons. Molecular Biology of the Cell 24: 285-296.

Lee, S. H., Harold, D., Nyholt, D. R., ANZGene Consortium International Endogene Consortium, T. G. a. E. R. f. A. s. d. G. C., Goddard, M. E., Zondervan, K. T., Williams, J., Montgomery, G. W., Wray, N. R. & Visscher, P. M. (2013) Estimation and partitioning of polygenic variation captured by common SNPs for Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and endometriosis. Human Molecular Genetics 22: 832-841.

Simpson, H. D., Kita, E. M., Scott, E. K. & Goodhill, G. J. (2012) A quantitative analysis of branching, growth cone turning and directed growth in zebrafish retinotectal axon guidance. Journal of Comparative Neurology 521: 1409-1429.

Tomatis, V. M., Papadopulos, A., Malintan, N. T., Martin, S., Wallis, T., Gormal, R. S., Kendrick-Jones, J., Buss, F. & Meunier, F. A. (2013) Myosin VI small insert isoform maintains exocytosis by tethering secretory granules to the cortical actin. Journal of Cell Biology 200: 301-320. 

Profile Professor Jrgen Gtz
Professor Jürgen Götz studied biochemistry in Switzerland before doing his PhD with Nobel Laureate Georges Khler at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Profile Professor Jürgen Götz

Professor Jurgen Gotz

Professor Jürgen Götz studied biochemistry in Switzerland before doing his PhD with Nobel Laureate Georges Köhler at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Following postdoctoral work in the US and work in the pharmaceutical industry, he established his reputation in dementia research in Switzerland, before taking up a Professorial position at The University of Sydney in 2005.;

He was recruited to The University of Queensland by Professor Perry Bartlett in 2012 to establish the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research (CJCADR).

Under Professor Götz’s guidance, researchers from CADR have identified several key mechanisms involved in the aetiology of dementia.

“We have determined at a molecular level what causes Alzheimer’s disease, by discovering how the two key players, tau and beta-amyloid, interact and cause the neurons in the brain to die,” he said.

Following the discovery, Professor Götz and his team worked hard to discover how to prevent this neuron death.

“By successfully developing methods to block the toxic effects of tau and beta-amyloid in our model systems, we are now at a point at which screening assays need to be developed to identify compounds that at some point will become drugs to treat Alzheimer’s.”

In fact, this work is now being developed into novel antibodies to vaccinate against Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are developing better methods to get these compounds, or the antibodies, for that matter, into the brain, a particularly challenging task, but we employ an effective method using ultrasonic waves – a non-intrusive way of breaking through the blood-brain barrier.”

Professor Götz is now hoping to expand the Centre by attracting world-class scientists to work on Parkinson’s disease, and head trauma due to sports injuries.

“Above all, we want to develop our therapeutic strategies to a point where they can be administered through clinics,” he said.

QBI Events Autumn 2013
  Upcoming Event   Million metres for MND Ian Davis and Scott Sullivan will be riding 1 million metres to increase awareness of motor neuron disease (MND), as well as raise funds to su...

QBI Events Autumn 2013

 Summer Scholars at QBI summer 2013

Upcoming Event

Million metres for MND

Ian Davis and Scott Sullivan will be riding 1 million metres to increase awareness of motor neuron disease (MND), as well as raise funds to support research into finding a cure.

Ian and Scott will ride down the east coast of Australia, from Brisbane to Sydney.

The tandem tricycle they will be riding has been custom built for the pair, as both men are MND sufferers and their bodies are beginning to be affected by the disease. 

Ian will be using a hand crank at the front of the trike to steer and help generate power, while Scott will be using his legs to peddle at the back.

The trike has a three-speed hub, 27 gears and low wind resistance, which will mean they will be able to hit higher speeds than many conventional bicycles.

The men will begin their Ride to Conquer MND on 3 May from the Queen Street Mall at 12.45pm, and aim to cycle past QBI at about 1.30pm. 

Please join us on the QBI lawn for a casual BBQ as we cheer them on their way.

Recent Event

Queensland student wins national Brain Bee 

Queenslander Jackson Huang has taken out the title of Australian Brain Bee Champion after the country’s brightest young minds competed in the finals of the Australian and New Zealand Brain Bee Challenge held in Melbourne in February. 

In front of an audience, the Queensland Academy of Science, Mathematics and Technology student beat seven other Australian finalists in a brain-teasing anatomy exam, doctor-patient diagnosis, written test and a neuroscience quiz.

The Victorian Minister for Education, The Honourable Martin Dixon MP, said the finalists were of an extremely high calibre.

“All the finalists have demonstrated an extraordinary talent, and I hope the Australian and New Zealand Brain Bee Challenge will inspire them to pursue further study in this vitally important field,” he said.

“The community as a whole will be the winners from advances in neuroscience.”

Jackson will now compete alongside the New Zealand Champion, Jiantao Shen, in the International Brain Bee Competition to be held in Vienna, Austria later this year. 

Recent Event

Budding neuroscientists work at QBI over Summer

Three former Australian Brain Bee Challenge (ABBC) competitors joined us over the Summer for hands-on work experience as part of the Transition Award – a paid placement offered to those students who obtained positions in the top three in their year of competing in the Challenge. 

The group included Esmi Zajaczkowski and Jack Hales, 1st and 2nd place winners from the 2010 ABBC, and Teresa Tang from Brisbane State High School, who won the 2012 International Brain Bee Competition. 

The students spent 8 weeks in a laboratory of their choice, working with a neuroscientist and undertaking a research project. 

The projects of Esmi on “Immunohistochemical identification of lentiviral constructs in mouse neuronal tissue”, Jack on “Morphological classification of Layer 1 neurons of the cortex”, and Teresa on “Can you face the voice?” were under the supervision of Dr Tim Bredy, Associate Professor Stephen Williams and Professor Jason Mattingley, respectively.

Save the date Tuesday 18 June – 5pm Annual Peter Goodenough Memorial Lecture

Address from Nobel Laureate, Professor Peter Doherty AO. Professor Doherty’s research is primarily focussed on defence against viruses. He currently divides his time between the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at The University of Melbourne and the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, USA.