Australia's Chief Scientist

Neuroscience in Australia

More than 100 neuroscientists gathered in Washington DC recently to hear Australia’s Chief Scientist, and former neuroscientist himself, speak as part of the world forum, Neuroscience 2011.

As well as opening a lecture on “Schizophrenia – Research Developments towards New Treatment”, Professor Chubb was also invited to speak at the “Neuroscience Down Under” forum at the Australian Embassy.

In his speech he highlighted the value and importance of research conducted by Australian neuroscientists.

“Neuroscience is ubiquitous – understanding how our brains work can obviously improve our mental health in areas like Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, but it also has the capacity to affect our daily lives by helping us improve the way we learn, or the way we relate to our family or friends,” Professor Chubb said.

To the audience, he acknowledged that the discipline can often be overlooked. “As a former neuroscientist myself; I will make sure this crucial science discipline remains on my agenda, especially considering its importance to the national interest,” he said.

The speech also highlighted some of Australia’s greatest contributions to neuroscience, including the 1963 Nobel prize-winning work of Sir John Eccles at the ANU on the ionic mechanisms of synaptic transmission in the brain and Professor Geoffrey Burnstock’s work at the University of Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s that led to the discovery of purinergic transmission and the first formal proposal that neurons may release more than one neurotransmitter. His discovery has helped scientists better understand and work towards treatments for epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, pain, cystic fibrosis and cancer.

More recently, in the 1990’s Australian scientists were the first to identify the presence of, and eventually isolate, neuronal stem cells in the adult brain. This was the basis for a new field of research into neuro-regeneration which has potential for new treatments of neurological and mental illnesses.

It was also an Australian who discovered the first effective medication for a mental illness. Dr John Cade’s discovery in 1948 of the effects of lithium carbonate as a mood stabiliser for bipolar disorder heralded the beginning of psychopharmacology. In an age where the standard treatments for psychosis were electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy Dr Cade revolutionised the way the world thought about mental illness.

Alzheimer’s research also owes a debt to an Australian neuroscientist, Professor Colin Masters research on amyloid plaques and A-beta protein identified a key pathway causing Alzheimer’s disease and are now the subject of world-wide research to provide diagnostic and treatment solutions.

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