Neuroscience News Spring 2013 section

$3.75 Million to support mental health research

$3.75 Million to support mental health research

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) will invest $3.75 million into research investigating the link between vitamin D and mental health.

The prestigious NHMRC John Cade Fellowship in Mental Health Research will provide Professor John McGrath with $750,000 per year for five years to study ways to prevent disorders such as schizophrenia. 

Professor McGrath is a leader in this field of research, having discovered that low vitamin D during early life is a risk factor for schizophrenia.

“Since proposing that low developmental vitamin D may be a risk factor for schizophrenia, we have published a major case-control study based on Danish neonatal blood spots that confirmed a direct link between vitamin D concentration and schizophrenia,” Professor McGrath said.

The NHMRC John Cade Fellowship in Mental Health Research will enable Professor McGrath to expand on current research to examine the association between early life vitamin D status and childhood brain development, as well as mental health in later life.

The research will involve studies of Brisbane-based and international cohorts. 

“The Fellowship will also help to establish clinical trials in Queensland and train junior psychiatrists in clinical neuroscience at QBI,” Professor McGrath said.

QBI Director, Professor Perry Bartlett, said this work was an outstanding example of the innovative research produced at the Institute.

“When Professor McGrath and his colleagues first began exploring the idea of a link between vitamin D and schizophrenia, he was taking mental health research into uncharted territory.”

“It’s bold steps like these that keep QBI’s work at the forefront of brain research,” he said. 

Professor McGrath received one of two NHMRC John Cade Fellowships, which were established to recognise visionary, innovative mental health research leaders with outstanding records and international achievements.

The Fellowships are one-off awards and are part of the Government’s strategic investment in mental health research in Australia.

Directors Message Spring 2013

Directors Message Spring 2013

I am delighted to inform you that Professor John McGrath has been awarded the very prestigious John Cade Fellowship in Mental Health Research in recognition of his ground-breaking research demonstrating that low exposure to vitamin D in early life is a causative factor in schizophrenia. The Fellowship is named after Dr John Cade AM (1912-1980), an Australian psychiatrist working after World War II, who discovered the effectiveness of lithium as a treatment for bipolar disorder. The $3.75 million awarded to Professor McGrath over five years will allow him to continue to build national leadership and capacity in this area and QBI is enormously excited that John and his colleagues have been honoured in this way. 

In addition, Associate Professor Naomi Wray’s work into discovering the genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia has been another highlight in this area with the publication of a recent paper in Nature Genetics showing, using a new method of genetic analysis, that a quarter of the risk of developing schizophrenia can be traced to genetic variations that are common in the general population and not due to changes in a single gene.

This edition coincides also with the tenth anniversary of our first philanthropic donation made by the Maclean family to support our research into motor neuron disease. This act of generosity led to the establishment of the Ross Maclean Senior Research Fellowship and the Maclean family has continued to support QBI ever since, pioneering a culture of giving at QBI, that has resulted in over $16 million in philanthropic donations during this time. Jeff Maclean continues to oversee our endeavours as Chairman of the QBI Development Board. I am extremely indebted and thankful to Jeff and his family for their wonderful support and friendship over the past 10 years. 

Philanthropy has become even more central to QBI’s success, because competitive grants are increasingly failing to fully fund the costs of the research and the shortfall must be found elsewhere. In essence, every dollar received from the granting bodies requires another dollar in matching funds. Nevertheless, thanks to the generous support of our donors our work continues to flourish, and this month I am delighted to announce two new fellowships funded by philanthropy: the Peter Hilton Research Fellowship in Ageing Dementia and the Queensland Freemasons Senior Research Fellowship in Learning and Memory, supported by UQ’s Endorsment Fund.

The marriage of dedicated researchers with our generous donors continues to power our discoveries and keep QBI at the forefront of brain research. 

I thank you for your ongoing support and look forward to sharing our latest research findings with you again soon.

Professor Perry Bartlett FAA

Events and Congratulations Spring 2013

Events and Congratulations Spring 2013

Upcoming Events 

Research Breakfast Series

In the fifth installment of our 2013 Breakfast Series, we will be presenting the latest research in the area of ageing dementia.

Led by Professor Jürgen Götz, researchers at the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research (CADR) are mapping the changes in the brain that occur in dementia. 

They are hopeful that this research will lead to the development of therapeutic approaches that will not only prevent and delay disease onset but will also reverse cognitive decline.

The seminar, to be presented on 10 October by Professor Götz and Associate Professor Lizzie Coulson, will highlight our current understanding of physiological brain function and how this research is helping to address ageing dementia-related questions.

The final research breakfast for 2013 will shed light on our most recent research into motor neuron disease. Details for the event, to be held in November, will be posted on the QBI website soon.

Like to attend?

For information on upcoming research breakfast talks please contact Mikaeli Costello at or on (07) 3346 6413.

Recent Events

Beating MND

A student’s passion for the ancient art of slit-drum making has reinvigorated the industry in Papua New Guinea.

The skill and art of making these traditional Papua New Guinean slit-drums, known as garamuts, has been the focus of UQ PhD student Mr Alphonse Aime’s research.

Mr Aime was the recipient of The Peter Goodenough and Wantoks PhD Scholarship in Anthropology established in memory of Mr Peter Goodenough, who had extensive business interests and friends in Papua New Guinea. 

Mr Goodenough sadly lost his life to motor neuron disease in 2004 and left a major bequest to QBI to further invest in research to treat this neurological disorder, some of which was used to support this anthropological scholarship.

To celebrate the success of Mr Aime’s project and QBI’s advances in motor neuron disease research, a ‘beating of the drums’ ceremony was held on 3 June, beginning at the UQ Anthropology Museum and ending at QBI.

The two garamuts were gifted to the UQ Anthropology Museum and QBI, where one of each is now housed, by the people from a village in the Madang Province of Papua New Guinea. (Image above).

The Peter Goodenough Memorial Lecture

Laureate Professor Peter Doherty returned to his alma mater, UQ, on 18 June to highlight the importance of philanthropy to guests at the annual Peter Goodenough Memorial Lecture. 

Hosted at QBI, Professor Doherty shared insights into his work with immunity and killer viruses, and the invaluable role philanthropy plays in funding the research that leads to the development of drugs to combat infection.

“Philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provide massive resources to combat infections – malaria, tuberculosis, HIV – that are prominent in the developing world,” he said. 

“When it comes to basic research on immunity, cancer, degenerative neurological diseases and so forth, tax dollar-supported research is vital, but it is never enough,” he said. 

“Philanthropy allows a flexibility that federal or state granting mechanisms can never allow.” 

Professor Doherty is one of only 11 Australian Nobel Laureates, and received the award in 1996 for the discovery of how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells. 

He was named the 1997 Australian of the Year and in 2007 he was declared a member of Australia’s 100 Living National Treasures. 

Save the Date

Annual Merson Lecture, 7 November 2013

Guest speaker – Professor Gordon Fishell, NYU School of Medicine.
Full details available on soon.

Genetic changes found to play a role in educational differences

Genetic changes found to play a role in educational differences

A worldwide consortium of medical researchers and social scientists has found tiny changes to a person’s genetic sequence are associated with educational level.

The study was conducted by the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, which includes Professor Peter Visscher.

“We studied the genetic information of more than 125,000 people, looking specifically at a type of genetic variation called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs),” Professor Visscher said.

A SNP is one of the most common genetic changes and involves the replacement of a single unit that makes up our DNA with another.

“We investigated whether any of these small genetic changes were associated with the number of years of schooling and also whether or not a person had finished tertiary education,” he said.

The study identified a number of SNPs that, when combined, were found to account for around two per cent of the difference in number of years and cognitive ability of the individuals.

Professor Visscher explained that although this finding is only a very small piece of a very large puzzle, involving many other genetic and environmental factors, it does have a number of significant implications.

“These small changes, though they have little effect alone, may lead to insights into biological pathways underlying human behaviour.

“Discovering them helps us to identify which genes are involved, leading us to study their function in much greater detail,” he said.

The study may also help to understand why some people are more susceptible to early cognitive decline than others.

“We are interested in understanding individual differences between people in memory and learning because that may lead to a better understanding of why some people cognitively age better than others, and why some people are genetically more susceptible to dementia,” Professor Visscher said.

The study had a sample size about ten times larger than any other study investigating social-scientific outcomes.

“By increasing the number of individuals, we can move toward having a better understanding of the true effects of individual genetic markers on behavioural traits,” Professor Visscher said.

The study, “GWAS of 126,559 individuals identifies genetic variants associated with educational attainment”, was published in the 21 June issue of Science, 340:1467-71.

Grant Recipients Spring 2013

Grant Recipients Spring 2013

Baumann, O. & Mattingley, J. B. (2013) Dissociable representations of environmental size and complexity in the human hippocampus. Journal of Neuroscience 33: 10526-10533.

Byrne, E. M., Gehrman, P. R., Medland, S. E., Nyholt, D. R., Heath, A. C., Madden, P. A. F., Hickie, I. B., Van Duijn, C. M., Henders, A. K., Montgomery, G. W., Martin, N. G., Wray, N. R. & The Chronogen Consortium. (2013) A genome-wide association study of sleep habits and insomnia. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics 162: 439-451.

Delaney, A. J., Sedlak, P. L., Autuori, E., Power, J. M. & Sah, P. (2013) Synaptic NMDA receptors in basolateral amygdala principal neurons are triheteromeric proteins: physiological role of GluN2B subunits. Journal of Neurophysiology 109: 1391-1402.

Martin, S., Tomatis, V. M., Papadopulos, A., Christie, M. P., Malintan, N. T., Gormal, R. S., Sugita, S., Martin, J. L., Collins, B. M. & Meunier, F. A. (2013) The Munc18-1 domain 3a loop is essential for neuroexocytosis but not for syntaxin-1A transport to the plasma membrane. Journal of Cell Science 126: 2353-2360. 

Milston, S. I., Vanman, E. J. & Cunnington, R. (2013) Cognitive empathy and motor activity during observed actions. Neuropsychologia 51: 1103-1108.

Spanevello, M. D., Tajouri, S. I., Mirciov, C., Kurniawan, N. D., Pearse, M. J., Fabri, L. J., Owczarek, C. M., Hardy, M. P., Bradford, R. A., Ramunno, M. L., Turnley, A., Ruitenberg, M., Boyd, A. W. & Bartlett, P. F. (2013) Acute delivery of EphA4-Fc improves functional recovery after contusive spinal cord injury in rats. Journal of Neurotrauma 30: 1023-1034.

van Alphen, B., Yap, M. H., Kirszenblat, L., Kottler, B. & van Swinderen, B. (2013) A dynamic deep sleep stage in Drosophila. Journal of Neuroscience 33: 6917-6927.

Queensland Freemasons Senior Research Fellowship in Learning and Memory

Queensland Freemasons Senior Research Fellowship in Learning and Memory

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

We are delighted to announce that The Board of Benevolence of Aged Masons, Widows and Orphans’ Fund, the charitable arm of the Freemasons Queensland, supported by The University of Queensland Endowment Fund Pty Ltd (UQef) will jointly establish a highly prestigious Fellowship for the study of learning and memory at QBI.

The Fellowship will fund an outstanding researcher over a period of five years, and will include the establishment and support of their laboratory. 

Research reveals genetic overlap between psychiatric disorders

Research reveals genetic overlap between psychiatric disorders

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

A ground-breaking study has found people susceptible to psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have underlying genetic similarities.

The study, conducted by a worldwide consortium of more than 300 medical researchers in more than 250 institutions, is the first to demonstrate such a link.

The research was led by QBI’s Dr Sang Hong Lee and Associate Professor Naomi Wray, and Professor Kenneth Kendler from the Virginia Commonwealth University in the USA.

“We studied the genetic information of more than 75,000 people, using a type of genetic variation called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs),” Associate Professor Wray said.

“A SNP is one of the most common genetic changes and involves the replacement of a single unit that makes up our DNA with another. 

“Using about a million SNPs measured on each person, we found evidence of increased genetic similarities between people with the same disorder.

“We also found significant similarities between people suffering from depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”

Associate Professor Wray said the study supported the hypothesis that mental illnesses could lie along a spectrum, possibly resulting from shared risk factors. 

“Psychiatric disorders account for about one-third of disability worldwide and cause enormous personal and societal burdens, affecting almost everyone, either directly or through friends and family,” Associate Professor Wray said.

“Despite the impact of these disorders, the underlying causes are mostly unknown. 

“Major depression has been a particularly complex challenge, partly because it is so common, but our results now provide clear guidance on what we need to do next to help unravel it,” she said. 

“We are now working toward generating a large body of information that will involve assessment of people with and without depression, to further identify genetic risk factors and differences in responses to treatment.

“Understanding these differences may contribute to personalising treatment options in the long term,” she said.

Associate Professor Wray will work in collaboration with researchers from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, the Brain and Mind Research Institute, and the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute to tease apart the genetics of depression.

“Our research is a long way from impacting those affected by psychiatric disorders in terms of diagnosis, prognosis or treatment, but we are glimpsing the potential that advances in genomic technology could have for our understanding of common mental illnesses,” she said.

The study, “Genetic relationship between five psychiatric disorders estimated from genome-wide SNPs”, was published online in the 11 August issue of Nature Genetics.

Study shows our brains ‘divide and conquer’

Study shows our brains ‘divide and conquer’

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

In a study that could provide hope for people with spatial memory impairment, our researchers have found human brains ‘divide and conquer’ when people learn to navigate around new environments.

The study found that the mental picture people create to help navigate to a new location is split into two sections.

The size of the environment is coded by one area of the brain and its complexity is coded in another.

Postdoctoral research fellow and lead researcher, Dr Oliver Baumann, said the work shed new light on how learning the layout of a new environment, and then accessing this information from memory, was represented in the brain.

“We’ve known for some time that a part of the brain called the hippocampus is important for building and maintaining cognitive maps,” he said.

“The results of our study have shown for the first time that different aspects of a learned environment – specifically its size and complexity – are represented by distinct areas within the hippocampus.”

Group Leader and Foundation Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience, Professor Jason Mattingley, said the findings could have important implications for people suffering from spatial memory impairments.

“This research is important for understanding how our brain normally stores and manages spatial information,” Professor Mattingley said.

“It also gives us clues as to why people with memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease often become lost in new or previously familiar surroundings.”

Dr Baumann said 18 people navigated their way through three virtual mazes that differed either in the number of corridors through which they could travel or the length of the corridors.

After learning the task, the participants were asked to recall mental maps from each of the mazes while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

“We found that one region in the hippocampus was more active when participants recalled a complex maze in which there were many corridors to choose from, irrespective of the overall size of the maze,” Dr Baumann said.

“Conversely, we found that a separate area of the hippocampus was more active when the overall size of the maze increased, regardless of the number of corridors.”

Full details of the article can be found in the publications list at the back of this newsletter.

Image: A virtual navigation task is used to isolate the differences in neural activity underlying the formation of navigation based metric and categorical spatial representations.

The Peter Hilton Research Fellowship in Ageing Dementia

The Peter Hilton Research Fellowship in Ageing Dementia

The Peter Hilton Research Fellowship in Ageing Dementia has been established in honour of the late Peter Hilton by his wife Robyn.

“Peter (above) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in February 2000, at the age of 66 after retiring from his career in law,” Mrs Hilton said. 

Mrs Hilton, like many touched by dementia, says the impact of the diagnosis is profound.

“Some time after the initial shock of the diagnosis, you start to feel helpless because there’s no known cure, there’s no timetable for the inevitable cognitive decline, there’s little effective medical treatment,” she said.

Mrs Hilton says dealing with Alzheimer’s disease is very much a matter of “feeling your way in the fog”.

“Each case is unique, depending on the type of dementia, the personality of the sufferer, which part of the brain is primarily affected.”

The Peter Hilton Research Fellowship will support an outstanding early-career researcher over a period of five years based at the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research (CADR). 

The primary role of the Peter Hilton Research Fellow will be to explore the interface between biological and physical research in memory and learning, how these functions are disrupted in dementia, and develop procedures to test and manage these dysfunctions. 

“I knew QBI was conducting valuable research into brain diseases, including dementia.

“To have a centre dedicated to researching ageing dementia highlights the obvious need for research in this field,” Mrs Hilton said.

“After attending the opening of the Centre in February this year I felt it was a cause I could commit to, and one I know Peter would have supported.”

“To this end, I’m delighted that the Peter Hilton Research Fellowship has been established.”

Mr Hilton died in June 2011 from complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease.