Great minds come together at brain research retreat

The 27th Australasian Winter Conference on Brain Research (AWCBR) was held this week in Queenstown. Dr Fabiana Kubke, of the University of Auckland’s School of Medical Sciences, attended the conference, and reports on some of the highlights of the research being presented.

Dr Fabiana Kubke

As it does every year, the AWCBR brought together a large group of neuroscientists working in New Zealand universities in the North and South Island, and this year there were also delegates from another six countries. The number of participants attending is ideal to promote strong interaction between participants, providing a stimulating environment to share our interests in the study of the brain and to brainstorm about new directions for future research.

Associate Professor Brian Hyland, from the University of Otago’s School of Medical Science University and one of the organisers of AWCBR said of the conference’s two plenary speakers:

Jason Mattingly from the University of Queensland spoke on brain mechanisms of attention and awareness in humans, addressed through studies on patients with damage to specific brain regions, and brain stimulation and imaging methods in normal volunteers. Tony Hannan from the University of Melbourne presented work on the interactions between genes and environment that determine how disorders such as Huntington’s disease and schizophrenia are expressed as well as work in animal models that is offering insights into possible new therapeutic approaches for brain disorders.”

Other speakers across the 10 symposia covered topics ranging from new findings about single molecules essential for transmission of information between nerve cells, to improved treatment strategies for people with stroke.

One of the things I most like about the meeting is that a large proportion of the participants are young investigators and postgraduate students, the latter receiving financial travel support from the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand. The quality of research by these young students was, as usual, superb. At the end of the meeting two students are chosen to receive the Goddard Prize for the best student oral presentation and the prize for best student poster presentation. This year, the prize winners were Bill Connelly, University of Otago, for his presentation entitled “Modulation and function of the autaptic connection s of layer V fast spiking interneurons in the neocortex,” and Bridget Simonson, from Victoria University of Wellington, for her poster on “Modulation of dopamine transporter function by potential anti-addiction compounds”.

University of Auckland senior lecturer, Dr Karen Waldie, gave an interesting talk on dyslexia presenting some fMRI data showing that the way that the brain is activated in monolingual and bilingual dyslexics was quite different.

“It looks like being bilingual, when you are dyslexic, provides a cognitive advantage and the brain activation looks more normal” said Dr Waldie. “So in families with a history of dyslexia there may value in having children learn a second language.”

Last year I had the chance to hear Matt Gers for the first time, a philosophy student from Victoria University who rocked my mind (here’s his thesis). And this year he did it again. His interests are deeply rooted in the notion of evolution, and he brought an interesting perspective on how the way that we shape and modify our environment (literally creating new learning surroundings) leads to very different intellectual abilities. Can we then, he asks, compare the psychological and emotional information obtained in previous generations that lived in environments that pose significantly different cognitive challenges? The brain is dynamically changing because the world around us is changing rapidly, and scientists need to keep up with it.

And since we are talking about environment; a few talks examined the effect that the richness of the environment had in how animals performed following different brain deficits. Tony Hannan, for example, is using a mouse model to study Huntington’s disease. He showed some work on the effect of what is called an ‘enriched environment’ (EE) in the progression of the disease. Enriched environments appear to slow down the progression and the severity of the disease and are also beneficial for normal mice.

En-Ju (Deborah) Lin used gene therapy methods to express BDNF under physiological control in the hypothalamus, and saw that this treatment had significant effects on fat deposition: there was a marked reduction in body weight.

Dr Judith Reinhard showed a very cool study on honey bees. She taught bees to extend their “tongues” (proboscis) when they were presented with a smell made up of a mixture of odorants by giving them a drop of sugared water when they detected the smell correctly. They then used this learned ‘reflex’ to find out what information bees were using to identify each of the mixtures. They found found that bees use a combination of signature odors to identify each complex mixture.

And of course, no neuroscience meeting could be called one without a series of talks about synaptic changes associated with learning. LTP stands for Long Term Potentiation, and refers to the way that learning changes the strength with which two neurons are connected. It is much easier to study these phenomena in in vitro preparations, and there were several talks on this theme. Two studies looked at these mechanisms in the intact animal, and of course, results prove to be much more difficult to obtain, but Dr Michael Eckert and Dr Jan Schultz from the University of Otago showed how this may be operating in the whole animal.

If you have any questions about any of the research, or researchers, mentioned above, please contact the SMC.