Brain plasticity research in focus for International Brain Awareness Week

19 March 2020

Understanding how brain stimulation affects brain circuits is a major focus for a Perron Institute research team.

Senior Research Fellow Associate Professor Jenny Rodger heads the Institute’s Brain Plasticity Research group and is currently in her third year of MSWA funding (the total amount being $1m, evenly split between four years). The fundamental research component of their work is currently centred on discovering how brain plasticity affects the way the different parts of the brain interact with each other.

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganise itself by forming new connections throughout life. This process allows the nerve cells in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in their environment.

Associate Professor Rodger said the Brain Plasticity Group’s applied fundamental research aims is part of an ambitious translational pipeline that includes clinical trials to bring better treatments to patients with neurological conditions.

“Our research uses a range of experimental models of human disease to understand the origins of disorders, as well as to test novel treatments,” Associate Professor Rodger said.

“In my fundamental research stream, I am really looking forward to testing out some novel techniques we are establishing at the Perron Institute this year.”

“We have some amazing new equipment and facilities at the Institute that allow us to ‘listen in’ to the electrical activity of brain cells and image the whole brain to progress our knowledge,” she said.

“This will be incredibly powerful to understand how the brain works, what happens when things go wrong, and how treatments can deliver benefits to patients.”

CEO Marcus Stafford AM said he was proud that MSWA was contributing funding to this important research project.

“MSWA is a leading funder of neurological research in Australia. In last year’s financial allocation alone, we invested $3.5m into local, national and international research projects,” said Mr Stafford.

“Given the recent concern about health and wellbeing stemming from the Coronavirus (COVID-19), it’s a timely reminder that research is vital and the scope is forever shifting.”

“At MSWA, we believe our commitment to research makes a real difference to our community at large and to those living with a neurological condition, in particular.”

Associate Professor Jenny Rodger said she was excited that that her research has provided new hypotheses about how brain plasticity works. This means that the fundamental research component of the work being undertaken by the Brain Plasticity group at the Perron Institute is driving new studies of treatments that can increase brain plasticity and treat a wide range of neurological conditions.

One of these treatments is a non-invasive procedure, known as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). It is applied externally through the skull and uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. It is one of the most promising techniques available to harness and promote brain plasticity.

Possible applications being explored include novel approaches to treatment of tinnitus (in a long-standing collaboration with Associate Professor Helmy Mulders from The University of Western Australia), depression and multiple sclerosis.

A pilot study is also looking at the potential use of transcranial magnetic stimulation in combination with robotics and neurophysiology to improve brain plasticity and functional outcomes after spinal cord injury.

Jenny’s focus for the next two years is to continue to translate her laboratory work into advancing treatments and achieving improved outcomes for patients.

“We now have insights into how we can improve treatments for people with depression and a clinical trial will be starting in the second half of the year,” she said.

“We have also published important research showing magnetic stimulation improves the survival of oligodendrocytes (the myelinating cells of the brain that die in multiple sclerosis) in experimental models and I am working to bring these findings to clinical trials in the next two years.”

“We’ve been ecstatic with our research so far and with MSWA’s continued support we look forward to extending these promising results to help people living with a neurological condition.”

New research projects to further understanding of brain function, dysfunction and plasticity have attracted over $1million in research funding in support of the work being led by Associate Professor Jenny Rodger at the Perron Institute.

More information about Jenny’s research will become available as her research progresses. To keep up to date with this project, and other MSWA funded research projects, head to our research section.