Our Regenerative Neuroscience Group aims to develop new strategies to prevent and treat dementia. Our team strives to reduce the enormous personal, social and economic cost of dementia to Australia and the world.
Our research focuses on discovering new therapeutic approaches for treating dementia and developing better dementia prevention strategies. We also work closely with the Healthy Brain Ageing Clinic to increase public awareness of modifiable dementia risk factors.
Our fundamental approach is based on understanding and harnessing the brain’s neuroplastic mechanisms. Neuroplasticity refers to how our brain changes in response to stimulatory experience.
We are innovators in the research and practice of brain training. Our group is part of the world’s largest dementia prevention study, the Maintain Your Brain trial, funded by a $6.5 million grant from the NHMRC.
This trial includes an all-new online approach to cognitive training, physical exercise, stress management and dietary modification. It will monitor the brain health of 18,000 older people in New South Wales over four years. This will be the first study able to accurately test whether comprehensive lifestyle management is truly capable of preventing or delaying dementia.
We also work closely with the Healthy Brain Ageing Clinic on the NHMRC-funded Trajectories Trial. In this study, we aim to determine whether evidence-based brain training can modify downwards memory trajectories in those people already engaged with the HBA Clinic.
Our laboratory is also examining new ways to diagnose cognitive impairment using home-based spatial tracking as well as automated neuropsychological tests.
Dementia is fundamentally a problem of mass neuronal and synaptic loss (ie, brain cells and the connections between them). We are therefore pioneering a regenerative medicine strategy that aims to replace these lost brain cells using stem cells. We begin with a small skin sample and isolate stem cells from the skin that have a neuronal memory. We then expand these cells using our developed technology.
We have shown that grafting these cells in an older brain can reverse memory deficits. Donor cells survive and mature into proper neurones connected to the host brain.
In April 2017, Timmy the cocker spaniel will have been dementia-free for two years. This is thanks to a breakthrough in stem cell therapy developed by our team here at the Brain and Mind Centre.
About one in eight older dogs develop Canine Cognitive Dysfunction or “doggie dementia.” It is characterised by dogs staring blankly at walls, memory loss, getting lost around the house, nocturnal agitation and incontinence. Dogs with this condition have the same Alzheimer’s pathology as humans and therefore the condition in dogs is an important bridge between rodents and humans. We believe that if our treatment works in dogs it will work in humans.
Timmy had a one year history of doggie dementia that was getting progressively worse. He was very disengaged, uninterested and had a disrupted sleep pattern. He was waking so many times in the night that his owners were considering euthanasia.
In April 2015 we obtained a sample of Timmy’s skin and produced a million neural stem cells, tailor-made for him. Then under anaesthetic and with the skills of a neurosurgeon, we injected Timmy’s cells into his hippocampus (brain’s memory centre) using his MRI brain scan.
Three months later, Timmy’s owners reported significant improvements in his behaviour. In fact, according to his owner’s results on our Canine Cognitive Dysfunction rating scale, Timmy no longer had dementia. Timmy is now back to his normal self and is an engaged and happy part of the family.
We are now in the process of expanding this trial to test our cell therapy on a numbers of dogs. We work with a number of collaborators including the University of Sydney Faculty of Veterinary Science, the University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital and the Animal Referral Hospital. Our group has also established a world-first Canine Brain Bank in conjunction with Associate Professor Michael Buckland at the Brain and Mind Centre and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
We are hopeful the results of the DOGS+CELLS trial will be positive and can lead to human clinical trial in the next few years.
An expert panel will explore the science behind neuroplasticity and dispel common myths at a public forum at the University of Sydney on Wednesday 1 June.
A meta-analysis has found that brain training – or Computerised Cognitive Training (CCT) – can improve memory in people with mild cognitive impairment, suggesting it may prevent dementia, which can take hold within a year.