Quick Project Snapshot

Next generation vagal nerve stimulation

Vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) is a treatment option for uncontrolled epilepsy (‘refractory epilepsies’) in adults and increasingly children. Treatment efficacy varies in patients; 30-90% gain improvement in seizure control, 10% seizure free, but most patients need to keep taking medication after the procedure. This variability likely relates to the heterogeneous composition of the vagus nerve.

VNS is also being pursed as a treatment option for other diseases. The FDA has approved VNS as a therapy for treatment resistant depression and as a ‘hunger’ signal blocker in the treatment of obesity. In addition, there are currently 43 open clinical trials for VNS for the treatment of heart failure, Crohns, cognitive decline, Alzheimer´s disease and headache. As all rely on electrical stimulation we predict all will suffer from the same side effect profile and variable outcomes as observed in VNS treatment for epilepsy.

The vagus nerve contains fibers that go up (afferent) to the brain and down (efferent) to the organs. Current VNS utilises electrical activation to send signals both up and down the nerve bundle. We hypothesise that vagal afferent nerve stimulation (VANS) will improve outcomes for patients. Thus we have pioneered a way to send signals only up to the brain, not down, via the vagus nerve using optogentics. Optogenetics relies on light rather than current and thus a dedicated VANS device is needed.

We are looking for a high achieving, intelligent and highly motived student to join our team. The successful student will learn advanced techniques including recoverable surgeries in rats and slice electrophysiology. If you have a genuine interest in neuroscience research and want more information about the project (and honours in general) I would welcome an obligation-free, informal chat.

Dr Stuart McDougall

Viscerosensory Laboratory

We study the basic neurophysiology underpinning integration of sensory information within the brain. Our focus of study is at the level of the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS), a region in the brain that first receives signals from visceral organs including those of the cardiovascular, respiratory and gastro intestinal systems. Knowledge about how the brain and internal organs co-ordinate is pertinent to several disease states, autonomic related; hypertension and obesity and mental health; stress and depression.

Sensory signals concerning internal organ function is termed ‘vicserosensory’, blood pressure for example. We study how the neural network within the NTS is organised; how vicserosensory information modifies behaviour (salt appetite) and visceral organ function during disease (hypertension). Equally, how behaviour (stress/depression) and disease (obesity) modify autonomic reflexes to alter visceral organ function.

The primary techniques utilised within the laboratory revolve around in vitro slice electrophysiology. We possess a large skill-set and toolkit to answer a variety of experimental questions including optogentics, chemogenetics, behavioural paradigms (stress), immunohistochemisty, stereotaxic and other recoverable surgeries that frame our synaptic studies within a larger context.

All Projects by this Lab

Inhibitory mechanisms within the nucleus of the solitary tractSynaptic gating of viscerosensory signalsViscerosensory pathways in the brainUtilising insect peptide hormones in the mammalian nervous systemNext generation vagal nerve stimulation

Systems Neurophysiology

In Systems Neurophysiology we seek to learn how the nervous system controls various bodily functions and how that control is altered in disease. Our disease focus includes not only neurological disorders such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, but also how the nervous system impacts on non-neurological diseases such as heart failure and inflammatory diseases.  A clear understanding of basic mechanisms is crucial in developing better therapies and reducing the impacts of illness. 

All Labs that operate in this Division

Autonomic Neuroscience LaboratoryDigestive Physiology and Nutrition LaboratoryNeurocardiovascular LaboratoryNeurovascular Biology LaboratoryRespiratory Neurophysiology LaboratoryViscerosensory Laboratory