Businessman and philanthropist Sir David Levene has donated $5 million to the University of Auckland for its world-leading brain research - one of the largest individual donations in the university's history.

Sir David, an Auckland property developer and the founder of homewares store Levenes, said he was inspired to gift the money to the Centre for Brain Research because of his family and friends' struggles with brain diseases.

It appears to be the season of giving for rich-listers. Also this week, New Zealand's wealthiest man Graeme Hart donated $10m to the University of Otago for its dental school. And Starship Hospital received $9m from the family trust of the late Sir Graeme Douglas, who made his money in pharmaceuticals.

Levene, who is publicity-shy, said he was donating to brain research because his late wife Billie had Parkinson's disease and he had friends whose partners had dementia.


"It's very difficult to watch someone you love suffer," he told the Weekend Herald.

"I didn't put Billie into care but hired nurses and caregivers to look after her around the clock. After 30 years, when she eventually died, I felt very, very lonely.

"Ageing is not easy, so if we can research ways to prevent and treat brain disease to ease suffering that can only be a good thing."

The donation will establish a permanent head of the Grafton-based Centre for Brain Research. That was part of the appeal for Levene, who strongly believed in succession plans in his business dealings. His family company faltered after being bought by Skellerup in 1994 - partly because there was no one to carry on his family-styled approach to business.

The centre's director and 40-year veteran of brain research, Sir Richard Faull, said the gift was "transformational" and "a dream come true".

"When they phoned up and told me they were going to give me $5 million I could not believe it. Because that was just our future looked after."

Faull said Levene had shown significant foresight in investing in brain research. Around one in five New Zealand adults are affected by brain disorders, most of which are incurable. There are 70,000 New Zealanders with Alzheimers, and there will be 170,000 by 2050.

"Alzheimers and Parkinson's are caused by multiple factors and there is never going to be an absolute cure," Faull said.

"But ... if you could slow the progression of that disease, you cut the prevalence by 50 per cent because people live longer, are more switched on, and die of something completely different.

"If you push it right out past their normal lifespan, then you have in fact cured the disease."


Established in 2009, the prestigious centre has built up a brain bank containing 1000 human brains, gifted by family members of people with neurological diseases or by people who have had tissue removed during operations.

The collection of brains makes the centre stand out internationally. Around 90 per cent of human brain research worldwide depends on rat brains.

The centre's first breakthrough was discovering the "plasticity" of the human brain - that it can create new brain cells. The finding completely reversed the notion that brains shrink throughout a person's life.

"So the more inputs you give that brain cell - with singing or writing poetry - the more healthy and active it becomes," Faull said. "It will change, it will develop. It's a bit like looking after a pet - you talk to it and it feels better."

Another research highlight has been the transfer of Huntington's patients' brain tissue into sheep brains, which allows researchers to investigate whether the Huntington's gene can be "turned down".

"People think it's a bit funny, New Zealanders working on the sheep," Faull said. "It's a real Kiwi approach. And it's critical. The human brain is much closer to the sheep brain than the rat brain."

There is not a strong culture of philanthropy in New Zealand, but universities are increasingly looking to private donors to top up their funding.

The University of Auckland is trying to raise $300m through private donors, and it said Levene's contribution was among the largest gifts so far. Other large donations came from Metlifecare founder Cliff Cook and late entrepreneur Liangren Li.

Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon said Levene's donation continued more than 20 years of support. He first gave money to the university in 1997 to cover the cost of disadvantaged students' scholarships.

"While the way we diagnose and treat brain disease may well change in the future, Sir David's wonderful gift will continue to help people with neurological diseases and conditions in perpetuity," he said.

1 Sheep brains
In a uniquely Kiwi experiment, human brain tissue from Huntington's patients has been implanted in sheep brains in Australia. This allows researchers to see whether the gene can be manipulated or "turned down", which would slow the onset of the debilitating disease.

2 Plasticity
Researchers discovered that brain cells could be generated throughout life - rather than just lost. That means patients can be made healthier and debilitating symptoms can be slowed by stimulating the brain - like social activity, music or reading.

3 CeleBRration Choir
Every Monday, a group of stroke and Alzheimer's patients who have speech defects get together in Auckland to sing for two or three hours. Because speech comes from the left hemisphere of the brain, and music generally comes from the right, singing can activate the damaged part of their brain and help them recover their speech.

4 Alzheimers clinics
The centre is trying to slow the onset of Alzheimers at the earliest possible stage. Researchers use MRIs, blood tests, and lifestyle changes to see if patient's symptoms can be slowed so they can sustain their quality of life.

5 Hope
Sometimes the simple knowledge that a brain disorder is being researched has a therapeutic effect on a patient and their families. For that reason, the centre does as much outreach as possible, sending its PhD graduates out to talk to families and patients.