Richard Faull: Neuroscientist

By Phil Taylor

This is a love story, an ongoing journey into the unknown, and a prime example that anything is possible even if you come from nowhere.

Home, when Richard Faull and his four brothers were in short pants, was Tikorangi, a north Taranaki town comprised of a general store, church and school. Faull's parents ran the store. Neither completed secondary school but passed on to their children an ethos founded on education, enthusiasm, determination, and service.

"My mother was the eternal optimist, and ingrained in all of us was that you served your community," says Faull. From that grounding came 30 years of pioneering research on the human brain and its diseases, which this year won him New Zealand's top science award, the Rutherford Medal, to go with the Health Research Council's Liley Medal won in 2005.

Faull's scientists based at Auckland University's School of Medicine busted the myth that once fully formed, the brain can only degenerate. They discovered through working with brain tissue of those who had Huntington's, a disease characterised by massive cell death that "the brain tries to repair itself by making new brain cells in quite major numbers".

Next came the discovery of a pathway that stem cells travelled from the middle of the brain towards the olfactory bulb, "the motorway of new brain cells" Faull calls it.

It was known that the rat brain had such a pathway but had been missed in the human brain, leading to doubts that it existed.

After more than two years of painstakingly examining slices of brain tissue, the pathway was revealed. It also led down to the olfactory bulb but in a more circuitous route and, significantly, there were hints of "possible off-ramps to the other major areas of the forebrain", opening the possibility that ways can be found to enhance the brain's own efforts to repair damage from strokes and diseases such as Huntington's and Parkinson's. The next step is to try to grow new brain cells.

Such discoveries are possible only because families donate the brains of loved ones who suffered from neurodegenerative diseases. Faull refers to the collection as "a boutique brain bank", such are the social histories that come of close co-operation with donors' families.

Faull, "62 years young", doesn't consider what he does to be work. His own path was sealed with the first glimpse of the human brain as a third-year medical student. "It was absolute love at first sight," he says.

His is the passion of the explorer. "My life has been a life of discovery. I'm forever amazed at the complexity and beauty of the human brain, because what each of us is is our human brain. It's the last frontier. We don't even know what constitutes an original thought."

"[But] we are starting to see through the haze, to begin to understand some of the marvels of the human brain. We get to the top of one Himalayas and, my gosh, the mountains before us are even higher."

"The challenge we have is trying to understand the human brain with our own brain. We may need an absolute super brain ... but there's a hint of real excitement ahead."

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