One of the objects the human brain has greatest difficulty understanding is – the human brain.
It is hard to relate the physical structures of our brain to the thoughts, memories and feelings that we experience every day. However, it is only by understanding how the brain functions normally that we can deal with the problems of when it goes wrong – when it is affected by injury, mental health illnesses such as depression, or cruel degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s. A vast range of expertise is required – in imaging to map the structures of the brain precisely, in genetics to understand how mental disorders are inherited, in stem cell therapy to develop new treatment, in psychology to answer fundamental questions about our thoughts and behaviour.
Cardiff University has this range of expertise, and in such depth it has helped place Wales 10th among the top nations for Neuroscience and Behaviour Research and, remarkably for such a small country, 3rd for Psychology and Psychiatry.
This world-leading research includes programmes to establish the genetic and environmental factors behind major mood and psychotic disorders. We know that genes and environment can both influence these disorders but the Cardiff team is leading research to identify exactly which ones, so we can advance the prevention and treatment of these diseases.
Cardiff scientists are investigating the genes affecting a number of other diseases. The University is leading a world-wide study involving more than 60,000 aiming to uncover the causes of Alzheimer’s Disease. Another team is examining the factors which cause Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children.
The structures of the brain are intimately related with its functions. Work in the School of Biosciences is examining the molecular mechanisms controlling the growth of the neural network, which has implications for understanding changes in associated with learning and memory and may have therapeutic implications for the diseased and injured nervous system. Memory is also at the centre of School of Psychology-led interdisciplinary research to establish the structures of the brain responsible for this function which could help our understanding of conditions such as amnesia.
Our understanding of the structures of the brain is enhanced by the remarkably detailed images now being obtained at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre. Researchers here are using multiple brain imaging technologies to investigate various brain systems. These include the visual system and how variation in structure and function of visual areas can result in different visual performances.
The end purpose of most neuroscience work is developing new treatments and therapies. Cardiff has a global reputation for work on stem cells – Professor Sir Martin Evans won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine for discoveries in this field. Now his colleagues in the School of Biosciences, through the Brain Repair Group, are world leaders in developing stem cell transplantation to treat neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s Disease and Huntington’s Disease.
Neuroscientific research is conducted in many of the University’s Schools, including the School of Optometry and Vision Sciences, where researchers are investigating inherited optic neuropathy which can lead to colour vision defects, visual field loss and other problems.
To tie together the various disciplines working in this field, and to promote interdisciplinary working, the University has created the Cardiff Neurosciences Centre. This involves more than 120 senior researchers from Schools and Centres across the University. Through this communication network, the quality, quantity and range of the existing world-leading neuroscience research taking place at Cardiff is being further enhanced.