The systems at the core of the brain that govern the basic functions of the body like breathing, temperature control and heart rate are investigated to better understand and prevent a number of diseases.
The brain regulates body temperature, keeping it within a narrow range. The consequences of failure can be life-threatening: elderly people with impaired temperature regulation frequently die of heat stroke during heat waves. The group is studying the pre-optic area in the brain, which is the master temperature controller, the signals the skin sends regarding temperature, and brain temperature itself as a complex combination regulating body temperature.
Heart failure is a serious condition with a high mortality rate. It afflicts 300,000 Australians in any year. Current treatments can improve symptoms and delay the course of the disease, but they cannot cure it. Australian researchers made the important discovery some years ago that in patients with heart failure, the nerves that stimulate the heart to beat harder and faster (cardiac sympathetic nerves) are activated to a much greater extent than sympathetic nerves to other parts of the body. This overactivity exacerbates the disease process and can trigger sudden death. The brain is known to drive these nerves, and our group’s aim is to understand why they are overactive in heart failure.
Based on animal models, it has been known for some time that hyper-excitability of neurons in the cerebral cortex of the brain is a prime cause of epilepsy. Until recently, it has not been possible to investigate this in humans because of an inability to study cortical excitability non-invasively. Using a technique known as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), it is now possible to stimulate the brain. Our research has been able to confirm from animal models that hyperexcitability of cortical neurons does underlie epilepsy, and that the pattern of hyperexcitability differs depending on the type of epilepsy displayed.