Neuroscience News Summer 2013 section

Bees artistic flair gives greater insight into visual memory
A collaboration with researchers at The University of Queenslands School of Psychology and the Federal University of Sao Carlos, Brazil has highlighted the remarkable visual memory of honeybees.

Bees artistic flair gives greater insight into visual memory

 Bees give insight into visual memory

A collaboration with researchers at The University of Queensland’s School of Psychology and the Federal University of Sao Carlos, Brazil has highlighted the remarkable visual memory of honeybees.

The study, published in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A, found honeybees had remarkable visual learning and discrimination abilities that extended beyond simple colours, shapes or patterns.

Dr Judith Reinhard said honeybees could distinguish landscape scenes, types of flowers, and even human faces.

“This suggests that in spite of their small brain, honeybees have a highly developed capacity for processing complex visual information, comparable in many respects to vertebrates,” she said.

Dr Reinhard and her team investigated whether this capacity extended to complex images that humans distinguish on the basis of artistic style, including Impressionist paintings by Monet and Cubist paintings by Picasso.

“We were able to show that honeybees learned to simultaneously discriminate between five different Monet and Picasso paintings, and that they did not rely on luminance, colour, or spatial frequency information,” she said.

“Our study suggests that discrimination of artistic styles is not a higher cognitive function that is unique to humans, but simply due to the capacity of animals – from insects to humans – to extract and categorise the visual characteristics of complex images,” Dr Reinhard said.

Dendrites compute more than one thing at a time
Researchers from QBI, in partnership with colleagues from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the USA, have made a discovery about how neurons process information during behaviour.

Dendrites compute more than one thing at a time

Dendrites compute - image of mouse's whiskers

Researchers from QBI, in partnership with colleagues from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the USA, have made a discovery about how neurons process information during behaviour.

Findings of the study, recently published in the prestigious journal Nature, show that dendrites – the fine extensions of a neuron, which collect signals from other neurons within a network – operate during behaviour to actively compute the occurrence of sensory and motor signals. 

 “Our work over the last ten years has shown that active processing occurs in the dendrites of neurons maintained in thin slices of the brain in vitro, however, little has been known about the role of dendrites in circuit computations in behaving animals,” says Associate Professor Stephen Williams.

These findings will help to better understand how the brain processes multiple types of information to perform complex behaviours.

The researchers used advanced optical imaging and electrophysiological techniques to observe single neurons in the neocortex of behaving mice, during a task where the mice sensed the location of an object using their whiskers.

“In the mouse, one of the major sensory modalities is touch by the whiskers,” says Associate Professor Williams.

“We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the dendrites of nerve cells are highly excited during a sensory-motor behaviour,” he said.

“More importantly we found that dendritic integration acts to combine motor signals, which control muscle movement, with sensory signals detected from the environment.” 

By integrating different types of signals such as touch and movement, the brain can perform at lightning speed, allowing animals to predict where a sensory signal occurred in relation to its movement and react accordingly.

“Whisker movement is triggered by the motor cortex, which sends projections to the distal dendrites of the output neurons in the sensory area of the neocortex.

“When a sensory signal is detected and correlated with motor cortex activity a large output response is generated in the dendrites, which represents the detection of an object in head-centred coordinates,” says Associate Professor Williams.

Director's Message Summer 2013
On November 19, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the opening of the new QBI building. It is a good time to reflect on the growth and success of the Institute over these past five years.

Director's Message Summer 2013

On November 19, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the opening of the new QBI building. It is a good time to reflect on the growth and success of the Institute over these past five years.

We have significantly increased the number of scientific staff and students, from 10 students, 18 Principal Investigators (PIs) and a total of 89 staff in 2007, to 92 students, 33 PIs and 350 staff in 2012. During this time our success in competitive grant funding has continued to improve, with Australian Research Council (ARC) support increasing from $2.02 million in 2007 to $5.68 million in 2012, and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) support increasing from $2.4 million to $6.63 million over the same period. This growth and grant success has been driven by research excellence and productivity; the latter has seen not only an increase in publication numbers – from 62 in 2007 to 174 in 2012, but also an increasing number of publications in the world’s foremost journals, with 3 in Nature, 1 in Science, 2 in Neuron, 1 in Nature Neuroscience and 6 in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2012. The Institute has established two new centres: the Centre for Ageing Dementia Research and the Science of Learning Centre, the only centres of their kind in Australia. I am also immensely proud of the establishment of two joint laboratories with our research colleagues in China: the Joint Laboratory of Neuroscience and Cognition with the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Biophysics in Beijing, and the Joint Sino-Australian Neurogenetics Laboratory with the Changzheng Hospital at the Second Military Medical University in Shanghai. Overall, it has been an immensely successful five years, highlighted by Neurosciences at The University of Queensland again receiving the highest score of 5, ‘well above world standards’ in the recent Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) rankings.

Professor Perry Bartlett FAA
Director, Queensland Brain Institute

GRANT RECIPIENTS Summer 2013
National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) A total of $4.9 million was recently awarded by the NHMRC to QBI to fund 10 projects commencing in 2013. The recipients include:

GRANT RECIPIENTS Summer 2013

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)

A total of $4.9 million was recently awarded by the NHMRC to QBI to fund 10 projects commencing in 2013. The recipients include:

  • Professor Perry Bartlett
  • Dr Tim Bredy
  • Associate Professor Elizabeth Coulson
  • Associate Professor Darryl Eyles
  • Professor Geoffrey Goodhill
  • Associate Professor Frederic Meunier
  • Professor Linda Richards (x2)
  • Associate Professor Naomi Wray (x2)

Drs Ben Sivyer and Enda Byrne were each awarded a highly competitive Early Career Fellowship.

Australian Research Council (ARC) 

QBI researchers were also awarded $1.69 million in ARC Discovery Project grants, $1.125 million in Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRAs), and an $800,000 injection for new equipment funded under the ARC’s Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) scheme. The recipients include:

  • Professor Jürgen Götz
  • Professor Joe Lynch
  • Professor Pankaj Sah
  • Associate Professor Stephen Williams 

Drs Marta Garrido and Hong Sang Lee were recognised through the awarding of DECRAs.

Associate Professor Frederic Meunier and colleagues received $800,000 through the LIEF scheme to go towards a live molecular imaging machine using super resolution microscopy.

Despite our on-going success, the Institute is still heavily reliant on additional funding. QBI must match every dollar of grant funding with a further dollar to make research possible.

Profile: Associate Professor Elizabeth Coulson
Profile: Associate Professor Elizabeth Coulson completed her undergraduate Honours degree at The University of Melbourne, majoring in genetics and biochemistry.

Profile: Associate Professor Elizabeth Coulson

Assoc. Prof Elizabeth Coulson

Associate Professor Elizabeth Coulson completed her undergraduate Honours degree at The University of Melbourne, majoring in genetics and biochemistry. 

She then undertook a PhD with Professor Colin Masters in the Department of Pathology, also at The University of Melbourne, to study the normal function of the amyloid precursor protein of Alzheimer’s disease.

Following a year overseas at the Center for Molecular Biology of the University of Heidelberg, Germany, she returned to Australia to pursue Postdoctoral work at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, studying neuronal cell death in neurodegeneration and development.

In 2003 she was recruited to The University of Queensland as a founding member of QBI.

Associate Professor Coulson’s career has focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms regulating neuronal survival and death, particularly relating to the role of the neurotrophin growth factors and their receptors, with a view to translating these findings into treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, in particular Alzheimer’s disease and MND.

In particular, she has conducted extensive work on a protein called p75 neurotrophin receptor, which regulates the survival and death of neurons.

Associate Professor Coulson found that the function of the protein changes if it gets processed into different fragments – one fragment can initiate cell death messengers and the other can potentiate survival messengers.

In the recent project grants awarded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Associate Professor Coulson received $824,640, the largest sum awarded to a QBI grant recipient in this round.

The funding will support a study of the connection between disturbed sleep and cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients.

“Sleep disruption, particularly to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.

“The largest class of drugs given to Alzheimer’s disease patients aims to increase the function of cholinergic neurons that degenerate early in the disease, but they also appear to be effective in treating sleep disturbance.

“We hope to determine whether the causes of sleep disturbance also underpin development or progression of Alzheimer’s disease”.

QBI Events Summer 2013
Recent Events: Probus Visit On 20 November, QBI welcomed 21 visitors from the Kenmore Probus Group, an association for senior members of the community and those no longer working full-time.

QBI Events Summer 2013

Probus Visit

Recent Events: Probus Visit

On 20 November, QBI welcomed 21 visitors from the Kenmore Probus Group, an association for senior members of the community and those no longer working full-time.

The group (above) toured the facility, visiting the laboratories of Professor Jürgen Götz, Professor Pankaj Sah and Associate Professor Elizabeth Coulson, who each presented their research.

Probus committee member, Jack Greenwood, said it was a privilege to be able to visit the facilities at QBI.

“We were really impressed not only with the great building and research facilities, but by the large number of dynamic and knowledgeable young folk working on ground-breaking areas of research,” he said.

He said he believed the work at QBI would lead to real benefits for the well-being of people in general, including the elderly community.

“It is only with support from groups such as this that we will be able to continue with cutting-edge research, which has so much potential for social benefit,” Professor Bartlett said.

QBI’s community engagement team is hoping to host further groups for similar visits in 2013.

Congratulations

We are delighted to congratulate QBI’s Professor John McGrath on receiving the 2012 Founders Medal from the Australasian Society for Psychiatric Research (ASPR).

The medal is awarded annually to persons who, over their entire careers, have made a contribution of significance to psychiatric research.  

Professor McGrath says to be recognised for such a prestigious award is an honour.

“It’s fantastic to have recognition from my peers – research related to biological psychiatry is now flourishing in Australia and QBI is leading the way in many areas.”

QBI Director, Professor Perry Bartlett, says the recognition is testament to Professor McGrath’s outstanding commitment to and achievements in psychiatric research.

Professor McGrath has made significant advances in psychiatric research, in particular his work to generate and evaluate non-genetic risk factors for schizophrenia,” he said.

“In his time at QBI, he has supervised major systematic reviews of the incidence, prevalence and mortality of schizophrenia.”

The award was presented at the 2012 ASPR conference in Fremantle, Western Australia in December.

Recent Events: MND swim  

QBI’s researchers have taken a different approach to raising research funds. On Sunday 2 December 2012, more than 250 swimmers combined to swim 1 million metres to raise money to help people living with motor neuron disease (MND).

Held for the second consecutive year, the event called on a network of volunteers to take part in the event, raising more than $150,000 for The MND and Me Foundation Ltd.

Special congratulations go to QBI’s team members Sepideh Keshavarzi, Conor O’Leary, Florence Cotel, Julianne Harty and Andrew Thompson who raised $2,285, which will go directly to MND research at QBI.

We send our special thanks to The MND and Me Foundation for their ongoing support of the work at QBI.

Save the date: ANS Melbourne 3 – 6 February 2013

Australian Neuroscience Society (ANS) Annual Conference
This premier scientific meeting will incorporate four outstanding plenary lectures. Commencing on Sunday afternoon, the Overseas Plenary Lecture will be given by Professor Nancy Ip of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Support from MND and Me
The MND and Me Foundation has been powerful in its quest to improve the understanding of motor neuron disease (MND).

Support from MND and Me

L – R: Jeff Maclean (Chair, QBI Development Board), Scott Sullivan and Perry Bartlett.

The MND and Me Foundation has been powerful in its quest to improve the understanding of motor neuron disease (MND).

In October, Founder of The MND and Me Foundation, Scott Sullivan, contributed $50,000 to QBI’s research into finding a cure for the disease that currently affects 1,400 Australians – himself included.

“After I was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, we established MND and Me to help contribute financially to finding a cure,” he said.

“We feel great pride in being able to assist the work of the QBI, as their work is invaluable in the quest for a cure.”

“Through their multidisciplinary approach, Dr Robyn Wallace and her team are making significant advances towards understanding the disease and we are big supporters of their work.”

At least one Australian dies and another is diagnosed with MND every day. 

The onset of MND can occur between the ages of 20 and 70, with sufferers having an average life expectancy of 2–3 years from diagnosis.

Professor Perry Bartlett says private donations like the one from MND and Me play a significant role in funding research at the Institute.

“This builds on a strong legacy of philanthropic funding for motor neuron disease research at QBI, that has allowed us to develop one of the leading programs in this field,” he said.

“We rely heavily on private donations and we thank Scott Sullivan and The MND and Me Foundation for their ongoing support of QBI’s work with motor neuron disease.”