Grant will assist in stroke research

Dr Antonio Berretta, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Otago anatomy department, is pictured with a greatly magnified image of astrocytes, star-shaped support cells for neurons in the brain. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Dr Antonio Berretta, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Otago anatomy department, is pictured with a greatly magnified image of astrocytes, star-shaped support cells for neurons in the brain. Photo by Peter McIntosh.

University of Otago scientists aim to shed new light on the role of brain support cells during recovery from strokes, thanks to a grant of more than $159,000 from the Neurological Foundation.

Stroke is the leading cause of adult disability in New Zealand.

Recovery from stroke is difficult and often life-long, foundation officials say.

Fortunately, significant neurological recovery did occur after stroke, and research had focused on enhancing this process in order to develop ''improved rehabilitative therapies and drug treatments'', officials said.

Research had also shown that astrocytes - the brain's star-shaped support cells - played a central role in the functions of neurons (nerve cells).

But it was not yet clear what effect astrocytes had in recovery from stroke.

Dr Antonio Berretta, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Otago anatomy department, has received a $159,106 project grant.

The project aimed to assess whether these cells could influence a neuronal receptor called GABBA, which had a ''significant role in post stroke recovery''.

This assessment would help clarify in detail how astrocytes contributed to limiting the spread of damage, and facilitating recovery in the brain after stroke, officials said.

Dr Berretta, who was born in Italy, was happy to gain the funding, and to be working on astrocytes, which were attracting growing interest among researchers.

Dr Andrew Clarkson, an Otago senior research fellow, and a co-investigator in the research, said that if the normal function of astrocytes was better understood, a drug treatment could be developed.

This could use astrocytes to indirectly unlock the potential of some brain cells which had not been destroyed but had been ''silenced'' by stroke, Dr Clarkson said.

• Dr Tracy Melzer, of the university's Christchurch campus, has been awarded the 2013 Neurological Foundation Philip Wrightson Postdoctoral Fellowship, amounting to $178,000.

He will use advanced brain scanning techniques to assess Parkinson's patients, who will be scanned at four-year intervals.

The MRI scanning technology was relatively unexplored in Parkinson's, and would be used to determine the functional state of the brain and identify markers so emerging therapies could be tested, officials said.