Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Unlocking the secrets of our brains

Auckland University is building a unique centre for brain research. Phil Taylor spoke to its director, Richard Faull, about the possibilities for treatments for incurable brain diseases

Prof Faull has devoted his career to understanding the human brain. Photo / Greg Bowker
Prof Faull has devoted his career to understanding the human brain. Photo / Greg Bowker

Within moments of sitting down in his office, Professor Richard Faull whips out a human brain, places it on the desk between us and announces, "Here it is," in the manner of someone displaying their most-prized possession. And that it is. The brain is Faull's life's work, and that of many others involved in the University of Auckland's Centre for Brain Research, of which he is the director.

It's what sets humans apart from other animals, enables us to build cities and fly to the moon.

"Actual size, yes, plasticised and preserved," says Faull, his finger tracking from one bloated macaroni-like shape to the next. "All these folds do different things. This here is the motor area, controlling movement. This is the sensory area, that's where you feel it when someone gives you a kiss. Your personality and your behaviour are all out the front part, here - the forebrain."

It's the forebrain that over the past two million years has developed to be very large in humans.

To demonstrate, the professor whips out the progressively tinier brains of a baboon, a cat and a rat.

"What's incredible is that the human brain is so complex. I'm going to take them on a magical journey to explore the human brain." Faull is referring to a public lecture he is to give this Thursday, the second annual Reeves Memorial Lecture, named after former Governor-General and Anglican archbishop Sir Paul Reeves and intended to stimulate public debate as the BBC's Reith lectures have done in Britain.

"Every person is different and every person's personality is different, and they come all with different skills. We can't tell that when we look at the brain but we know there are over 100 billion brain cells and those brain cells communicate. Each brain cell clocks up to 100,000 inputs."

It is that connectivity, says Faull, that makes it such an incredible organ. "Put that all together and you get a unique human being who has intuition, memory, imagination, foresight, philosophical abilities, athletic abilities. It all comes out of this, which, to me, is marvellous."

The brain is the last frontier of medical research. Scientists are gaining only glimpses of how it may work, but enough is known to imagine the possibilities.

Faull's scientists debunked the notion that the fully formed brain can only degenerate. Through working with the brain tissue of those who died with Huntington's, a disease characterised by massive cell death, they discovered that the brain tries to repair itself by making new brain cells. Next came the discovery of a pathway that stem cells travelled from the middle of the brain towards the olfactory bulb, "a motorway of new brain cells".

Work is under way to try to harness the brain's restorative powers by trying to grow cells from that pathway, create "off-ramps" to channel stems cells to damaged parts of the brain and to figure out why stem cells are less effective against some diseases. "It's got huge potential if we understand it more."

Treatments based on stem cells is one part of the future Faull envisages for combating brain diseases. Another may come courtesy of an Australian flock of sheep.

The discovery, in 1993, of the gene responsible for Huntington's disease opened the way for geneticists to implant that human gene into the sheep genome, making the first large animal model of human brain disease in the world. Sheep were chosen over other animals because their large brains are similar to humans' and because their longer life span is better suited to the slow development of the disease.

Consequently there are 200 transgenetic sheep on a South Australian farm coming up to 6 years old that are displaying early signs of the disease.

"Because we know the gene responsible, we can now experiment to see if we can interfere and turn that gene down and see if that would stop the progression of the changes we see in Huntington's disease," says Faull.

"If it works in the sheep brain, we may have a new treatment for Huntington's ." Solving that disease would provide clues for combating other brain diseases.

The sheep experiment is a collaboration with scientists in Australia, England and the United States but was the idea of the Auckland scientists. "It was our idea and that's the excitement," says Faull. "We are going to make a difference."

These are but two of dozens of areas the Centre for Brain Research is involved in. The vision for the centre is to bring all the different groups that look at the brain in different ways to make a collaborative, interactive club.

"Instead of having one department store that handles hardware, another that handles clothing and so on," says Faull, "we have made a virtual warehouse of brain researchers."

On Faull's floor of the medical school are 10 research groups, with a further 45 spread throughout the University of Auckland. Researchers make up one of three pillars of the centre, the others being the doctors and the community of families affected by brain diseases. Faull refers to it as an interactive club, which he believes is unique in its configuration and its close relationship with affected families.

"We can ring up any of the families who have donated a brain to us. There are other brain centres but they are different. They mainly just do research, or they work just for doctors. But we have the facilities and the contacts to work across the whole spectrum and that makes us a special club, it gives us power.

"We get the brains soon after death, so not only can we look and see what is going wrong with the brains in terms of the cell loss, the chemical loss, we can take these brain cells and we can keep them alive in a special bio-bank."

The centre's "brain bank" has more than 500 brains, enabling comparison of cells affected by Alzheimer's, Huntington's or Parkinson's.

One in five people will suffer from brain disease such as stroke, epilepsy, dementia, Huntington's disease, Parkinson's's disease, Multiple Sclerosis and Motor Neurone Disease. Faull describes the centre as a "Team New Zealand for brain research".

Discoveries yet to be made include why cells die in diseases such as Alzheimer's (the most common form of dementia) and Parkinson's.

Scientists at the centre are working with brains from a range of species from fish, mice, and rats through to human.

Though treatments that may appear promising on a rat most often don't work on humans, the research is useful for sparking ideas, says Faull. The next step is research on people with brain diseases to monitor the speed of disease progression and to examine blood to find biological markers.

"Our next critical dream is to get a professor of neurosurgery into the research team."

The role would be half surgery and half research, with a small support team built around the role. A fundraising drive to raise $8 million for the team is about to begin.

"Imagine tomorrow's world," says Faull. "If we can get our researchers working more closely with the brain surgeons and with the neurologists and the patients and the families, we could move mountains, because we don't have a treatment for any brain disease right now.

"We have ways of helping people with brain disease, we can take out tumours and seal off blood vessels, but if we had ways of slowing down or stopping the disease that would be great." Slowing the onset of Alzheimer's by five years, for example, would cut its prevalence in half. With 45,000 New Zealanders suffering from that disease alone, the potential is vast.

In tomorrow's world, Faull believes research will have led to new therapies, new drugs and "packages of care" tailored to patients' specific needs.

"I don't believe we are going to fully understand the human brain but we are advancing so that we can better look after people with brain disease."


When and where

Reeves Memorial Lecture, by Professor Faull
• Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell
• 7.30pm, Thursday, September 12
• Tickets $30 at reeveslecture.eventbrite.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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