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Kick-start for brain regeneration

Current treatments for brain injury ignore the potential of the brain to repair itself. They focus instead on rehabilitation of the patient once the brain has been damaged. However, Dr James Bourne's research suggests it may be possible to kick-start the brain's regenerative capacity following an injury.

James is leading a research team searching for clues within the developing and adult primate brain for mechanisms that stimulate brain repair. 'Too many people have been focusing on the end point - I believe we can actually switch on regeneration through looking at what is happening during development,' James says.

Car accidents are the most common cause of brain injury. The Victorian Neurotrauma Initiative estimates that brain and spinal cord injuries from car accidents cost Australia $10.5 billion a year. Add strokes and workplace accidents to this and the cost of brain injury is even greater. James believes that neural regenerative medicine could significantly reduce both the financial and emotional burden of brain injuries.

When the brain matures, many of the proteins involved in development are switched off. James and his team are focusing on which proteins and other factors can be switched back on to help rebuild the brain in adulthood.

Neonatal brains recover from trauma much better than mature brains because of their plasticity. James believes these 'plastic' brains contain important molecules that guide cells to correct themselves. Directing cells from areas of the brain that produce cells into the damaged areas could reverse the effects of injury.

'We can take a chunk of brain and culture from these neural progenitors cells (junior cells) and place them back into the brain,' James says. 'The neural progenitors are precursor cells and can go down any lineages. We place these cells back in the brain and can show whether they reintegrate and became part of a functional circuit.'

The chemicals that cells use to send signals to other parts of the brain are toxic when released in large amounts. When damaged, these chemicals cause death and degeneration of the surrounding tissue. Other cells cause scarring when damaged, acting like a brick wall and preventing the brain from rewiring.

'We haven't shown full regeneration yet - that is the next big thing - but we have demonstrated we can prevent scarring,' he says. The technique of replacing cells and molecules could be used on humans within the next five years.

In 2007, James received one the country's highest scientific honours, an award from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) for scientific and leadership excellence in the health and medical field. The NHMRC funds his fellowship and ongoing projects.

Research area keywords

  • Supervision: Neuroscience
  • Commentary: Neurobiology
  • Regenerative Medicine


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