Finding the back gate to schizophrenia

15 May 2017
Associate Professor James Bourne (Courtesy ARMI)

Monash researcher Associate Professor Bourne has been awarded a prestigious grant to study how cognitive function is controlled in the brain and how these mechanisms may influence the development of schizophrenia.

For most sufferers of schizophrenia, cognitive brain functions - such as working memory, abstract reasoning and inhibition - can become so compromised that researchers now suspect the brain areas responsible for these functions have more influence on the development of schizophrenia than originally thought.

The world’s top non-governmental funder of mental health research grants, The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, based in the US, recently announced that Australian researcher Associate Professor James Bourne from the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI), Monash University has been awarded a two year NARSAD Independent Investigator Grant, to study the key region in the brain that controls cognitive function, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and its connection with the nearby medial pulvinar when affected by schizophrenia.

Associate Professor Bourne believes that the medial pulvinar, which can ‘gate’ the transfer of cognitive functions in and out of the DLPFC and any impairment or changes in this gating process could highlight the reasons why schizophrenia develops in the first place and how we can create an earlier diagnosis and intervention strategy. 

“We suspect that any abnormalities to the menial pulvinars gating process is influencing a vital part of what is going awry for someone suffering schizophrenia, as the brains way of filtering messages in and out of these areas has displayed impairment as a result."

“By remodelling and defining this area of direct connectivity to cognitive function, we can closely observe how much any medial pulvinar development abnormalities during early life through to adulthood will disrupt executive behaviour in adulthood, which is when schizophrenia usually presents itself,” says Bourne.

Bourne’s team will use a primate animal model as only primates and humans have a developed DLPFC area of the brain. They will disrupt the medial pulvinar connectivity in early life to see what consequence this has on the overall function, and subsequently the behaviour of the animal once it reaches adulthood.

“Our research effort is not only essential for further understandings on the brain and the development of mental health diseases such as schizophrenia, but if we are able to prove the relationships between the DLPFC and an abnormal menial pulvinar, this could lead to the establishment of early stage diagnosis and even novel early intervention treatment strategies”, says Bourne.

Professor Melissa Little, Program Leader of Stem Cells Australia, commenting on the award said, “Associate Professor Bourne’s work on schizophrenia using primate models will be central in the long term to the evaluation of potential treatments. His research has formed a central component of the Stem Cells Australia Neural Theme and will continue to be important as we move from stem cells to treatments.”

For more information:

Finding the back gate to schizophrenia [ARMI, 14 May 2017]