Neurodegenerative diseases affect tens-of-thousands of Australians in all age ranges. The debilitative affects of these diseases reduce quality of life and can potentially lead to death.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) affects around 80,000 people in Australia - on average, 25 Australians are diagnosed every day, and one in seven of those will be under 50 years of age. PD is a progressive and a degenerative condition that impairs the control of movement. Patients in the advanced stages depend on 24-hour care from loved ones or professionals. Symptoms result from the progressive degeneration of nerve cells, including those that make dopamine, a chemical messenger necessary for smooth, controlled movements.
Motor Neuron Disease (MND) is a debilitating disease striking 400 Australians each year. MND often begins with a weakness of the muscles in the hands or feet and eventually leads to generalised paralysis, including the inability to speak or swallow. At FNI, the MND research group is investigating the events that lead to MND with a view to creating ways to block the disease’s progression.
Astrocytes are the most abundant non-neuronal cells in the brain, and they possess remarkable capacities to modulate neuron-to-neuron signalling, to nourish and to protect neurons, and to contribute to their death in neurodegenerative conditions. FNI’s researchers have found that under certain conditions a number of events are triggered within astrocytes that act to preserve neuronal function when there is a lack of oxygen to the brain. One component of this defence mechanism is a transporter that controls the level of the brain’s positive chemical response.
Everyday experience tells us that sex hormones influence behaviour, but how well do we understand the mechanism? To demonstrate the effects of sex hormones on brain functions and behaviour, the group is currently studying a knockout mouse model which is completely estrogen deficient.
Replacing damaged or injured neurons by transplanting stem cells is an exciting prospect for a future therapy. Stem cells can divide, and are thus a potentially limitless source of new cells. They can also be instructed to become a particular cell type, such as a dopamine neuron (the degenerating cells in PD). The group aims to use these two capabilities to produce cells that can at least partially restore function after disease or trauma.