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
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
''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
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
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.