Researcher sees stars

University of Otago psychology researcher Owen Jones is helping clarify the role of astrocytes - star-shaped cells found in the brain. The astrocyte pictured is magnified more than 1000-fold. Photo by Linda Robertson.
University of Otago psychology researcher Owen Jones is helping clarify the role of astrocytes - star-shaped cells found in the brain. The astrocyte pictured is magnified more than 1000-fold. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Doctoral research by University of Otago scientist Owen Jones is shedding light on the mysteries of memory formation and communication within brain cells.

His research findings are adding to growing scientific support for using astrocytes - star-shaped cells in the brain - as therapeutic targets to counter the effect of Alzheimer's disease and other related diseases.

Mr Jones (34), who was born in Wales, will graduate from Otago University today with a PhD in psychology, based on his brain studies.

He will be among more than 230 graduands who will graduate in person from the university in a wide range of disciplines, including biomedical sciences, in a ceremony at the Dunedin Town Hall at 1pm.

His research was undertaken at the Otago Brain Health Research Centre and supervised by centre director Cliff Abraham, who also heads a major Health Research Council-funded research programme investigating therapeutic agents for Alzheimer's disease.

''I feel great. It's been a long road,'' Mr Jones said of his PhD studies, which he had spent more than four years completing.

''What's new is that we've shown that a certain type of cell, astrocytes, can regulate the strengthening of connections between neurons [nerve cells].

''This strengthening of connections is how we learn and store information in the brain, and it's very novel to learn that astrocytes can control this process,'' he said.

Scientists say astrocytes were once dismissed as merely passive structural support cells and it had earlier been believed that neurons were responsible for almost all the brain's functions.

But Mr Jones said astrocytes were ''now emerging as a viable target in many neurological diseases''.

Astrocytes, in fact, altered their activity ''during many neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease and Huntington's disease''.

And in many cases they entered a ''hyperactive'' state.

This could mean they were ''releasing more chemicals'' that could alter the function of neighbouring neurons, including dampening their activities.

This raised the possibility that astrocytes could be targeted therapeutically to revive the function of some nerve cells in the diseased brain, he said.

Mr Jones is continuing his research as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory.