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Exploring the secrets of the brain

Cardiff scientists are leading the way in unravelling some of the greatest mysteries of the human brain.

Experts across a range of disciplines are seeking treatments and cures for debilitating and often fatal brain diseases, while others are exploring the intricacies of how the brain works, to improve our understanding of human behaviour.

Among the major research projects under way are studies to tackle Alzheimer’s disease, brain cancer, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease, while massive investment in technology is bringing state-of-the-art brain imaging facilities to Cardiff.

One of the most significant Cardiff breakthroughs in brain research has been the creation of brain cancer cells by manipulating normal brain cells in the laboratory. The research, led by Professor David Wynford —Thomas in the Department of Pathology, School of Medicine, and funded by Cancer Research UK, could pave the way for new treatments.

Project Director, Professor Peter Halligan

Project Director, Professor Peter Halligan

Brain cancer does not generally respond well to radiotherapy or chemotherapy and currently the prognosis for patients is poor. The Cardiff breakthrough is, therefore, particularly important.

Using human brain cells, grown in the laboratory, Professor Wynford-Thomas and his team have become the first to create a model of malignant glioma — the most common brain cancer and one which is notoriously difficult to treat. It is believed the model, which provides a realistic view of

what happens during glioma development, will speed up the search for new drugs to treat the disease.

"Normal brain cells have built-in mechanisms which limit their lifespan and stop them developing into cancer. If we can design drugs to restore these in brain tumours that have lost them then we can slow down the growth of cancer cells and even kill them," said Professor Wynford-Thomas.

Meanwhile, research into Alzheimer’s disease — the leading cause of dementia — includes studies of some 2,000 sufferers to help identify its genetic causes. Experts from the Departments of Psychological Medicine and Medical Genetics, in the School of Medicine, and the School of Biosciences have combined their talents to make a major breakthrough with the discovery of a gene which contributes to the disease.

The Co-operative Genetic Research Group has secured major backing from the Medical Research Council for its ground-breaking research into the identification of the harmful genes and how they interact with environmental risk factors, with the aim of developing new treatments.

Elsewhere, neurologists led by Professor Mark Wiles, head of the Neurology Section in the School of Medicine, are working to improve services for sufferers of motor neurone disease, a fatal condition which affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal chord and leads to weakness and wasting of muscles.

Their work includes research into the devastating consequences of the condition, particularly the impact on muscles and the implications for treating patients.

Some of the most distressing neuro-degenerative diseases of adulthood, in particular Parkinson's and Huntington's disease are the focus of work in the Brain Repair Group, led by Professor Steve Dunnett in Cardiff School of Biosciences.

The group draws on expertise across disciplines to develop new treatments for these diseases by advancing our understanding of how cells in the central nervous system die and regenerate. The group is pioneering research into cell transplantation for Parkinson’s sufferers, and its findings also have implications for the treatment of other neuro-degenerative diseases such as Huntington's and multiple sclerosis.

A complementary approach to cell transplantation - replacing cells once already lost - is to protect damaged or traumatised cells in the brain from the assault of injury or disease. Although compounds have been identified which could offer this protection and promote regrowth of damaged cells, they tend not to reach the brain when injected or taken orally. The group is developing ways to deliver such neuroprotective agents into precise sites in the brain.

The Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre is being set up with a £10 million investment, mainly finance by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), as a direct result of merger.

The Centre will feature the latest brain scanning technologies, enabling psychologists and medical experts to gain a better understanding of how our brain works and what happens to people who suffer from brain injury and various neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The Centre will be one of the first in the UK to combine Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG) devoted solely to research. Both systems are used to study brain processes involved in everyday mental processes such as visual and auditory perception, attention, social functioning, memory, learning, speech and reasoning.

Application of these new technologies could lead to improved treatments for conditions such as strokes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and for patients with schizophrenia and depression.

"We are creating a facility as advanced as any of its kind in Europe or North America - a facility that offers new opportunities for collaboration across a range of disciplines," explained Project Director, Professor Peter Halligan, of the Cardiff School of Psychology.

Meanwhile, our understanding of human behaviour is being enhanced by major initiatives such as the UnumProvident Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research, in the School of Psychology. Backed by a £1.6 million investment from insurance provider Unum Provident, the centre’s research will lead to a better understanding of what makes people incapacitated and how to prevent and better support disabling incapacity to help people return to work after illness.

The work will bring benefits to employers, insurers and to individuals, who are healthier and happier when actively involved in work.

The research could help solve the modern-day paradox that, in spite of increasing medical innovation and discovery, more and more people of working age are being certified as incapable of work, often with complaints which cannot be understood in the same way as more identifiable diseases.

Through these projects and research centres, Cardiff University expertise is providing vital new insights into that most complex of organs, the human brain.

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