Neuroplasticity Stikes Back

Norman Doig’s The Brain that Changes itself has been one of the most successful popular science books of recent years. Successful in raw sales, but also in getting it’s central concept, neuroplasticity, into the popular vocabulary.

The point is that brains are far more flexible than we once realised, and can often respond to damage in remarkable ways. It’s a point close to my heart at the moment, as my mother is recovering from a stroke.

However, few people who are familiar with the book or concept would be aware of the extent to which Australians are at the cutting edge in this field. In particular, A/Prof Tony Hannan of the Howard Florey Institute has come out with wave upon wave of evidence that diseases such as Huntington’s and schizophrenia are much more amenable to environmental influences than previously realised. Mice with either condition exposed to physically and mentally stimulating environments do much better than mice that lack this stimulation, and there’s evidence this applies to humans as well.

Hannan is one of two scientists who are well out ahead in having received the most mentions in the articles I write for Australasian Science1. I’m trying to stimulate a joking rivalry between Hannan and marine biologist Dr Lexa Grutter in this regard. I doubt it will do anything for research per se, but if it means they both make sure I get informed of any work they’re doing it makes me happy.

Hannan has now snatched back the lead, as a co-author on a paper with Dr Tara Walker and Prof Perry Bartlett of the Queensland Brain Institute showing that mice with Huntington’s Disease have a large reservoir of precursor cells, ready to transform into new neurons. This is an astonishing finding for a couple of reasons. Firstly part of the problem in Huntington’s Disease is that new neurons cease forming, which prevents the acquisition of new memories, amongst other things. Secondly, the reservoir is much larger than for wild type mice of the same age. In other words, the cells are still lining up ready to form into neurons, but something is stopping them taking the last step or steps. Combined with Hannan’s previous findings this offers a lot of hope for delaying the impact of one of the most awful neurodegenerative diseases around.

Huntington’s is a very rare disease, but it gets a lot of research attention. There’s a reason for this, and it’s not just that there are a lot of Woody Guthrie fans in the scientific community. Huntington’s is seen as a purer, more refined version of some far more common diseases of the brain, notably Parkinson’s. There is hope that any steps we can take to control it will eventually flow through to assist others.

1 Hannan’s position has been somewhat advantaged by the fact that he supervised the PhD of my former housemate, the wonderful Emma Burrows. However, most of the 8 pieces I have written on his work were before Emma moved in. Aside from Grutter I think the only scientist I’ve reported on more than 5 times is Charley Lineweaver. Of course I wouldn’t claim that coverage in Australasian Science as a whole, let alone my sections, is any sort of reliable indication of research significance. However, it does at least indicate something about an ability to make one’s work accessible to the general public.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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