Flinders Medical Centre Foundation
Flinders Medical Centre Foundation


Unlocking The Pain Key

Unlocking The Secrets Of The Sensory Nervous System

Brain To Computer, A New Realm Of Possibilities

Researchers Need Brains

Investigating Ecstasy Related Deaths

Investigation Into Brain Oedema

Better Outcomes For Joint Replacement Surgery

Mind Over Matter - The Way Of The Future

Unlocking The Pain Key
First Published: Investigator - February 2009

Developing a new generation of analgesics that target pain deep within the body is in the long-term sights of neuroscientists at Flinders Medical Centre.

The research team, headed by Professor Simon Brookes from the Flinders Centre for Neuroscience, hopes their work will eventually contribute to the development of targeted pain therapies for a range of conditions including deep muscle pain, heart burn, cystitis and irritable bowel syndrome.

Understanding how nerve endings in the gut wall work is crucial to developing these therapies, according to Simon.

‘Everything we do, everything we learn and everything we respond to is governed by our senses such as touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing,’ Simon said. ‘In practically every medical condition there are changes in sensation; the most obvious one being pain.’

Simon said while sensory nerve cells – the first step in experiencing sensation – were well understood for sensations from the skin, ie. hot and cold detectors, touch and pain detectors, scientists had poor understanding of deep tissue sensory nerves.

Professor Brookes and his colleagues have spent the past decade studying a series of sensory nerve sets within the gut and more recently, the bladder.

‘We have been able to characterise three major sets of sensory neurons in the gut that are responsible for sending information from the gut to the brain and have recently added a fourth set,’ Simon said.

The research team was responsible for discovering the role of nerve endings in the wall of the stomach that were first described more than 70 years ago, but whose function had remained a mystery. They turned out to be the nerves that tell the brain when the stomach is full after a meal.

Discovering these nerves may help identify new targets for drugs which could create better outcomes for a range of conditions, including invoking a sense of fullness sooner in obesity, reducing heartburn episodes or better pain management.

More recently the group identified another type of nerve ending that is involved in signalling pain from the intestines.

‘Most people experience unpleasant sensations from the gastrointestinal tract at some stage in their life, ranging from short-term nausea and vomiting to severe pain. Discovering these nerves may help identify new targets for drugs that could create better outcomes for a wide range of patients,’ Simon said.

Unlocking The Secrets Of The Sensory Nervous System
First Published: Investigator - July 2008

Neuroscientists at Flinders Medical Centre have discovered a series of nerves which have changed scientific understanding of how the sensory nervous system works in the gastrointestinal tract.

In 2001 Professor Simon Brookes and his team from the Flinders University Centre for Neuroscience discovered the role of nerve endings in the wall of the stomach that were first described over 70 years ago, but whose function had remained a mystery.

“It seems that these endings tell the brain when the stomach is full and are important in telling us when to stop eating,” said Professor Brookes. “They also play an important role in triggering the reflex that can cause acid reflux and heartburn.”

Since then his group has identified another type of nerve ending that is involved in signalling pain from the intestines.

“For decades it was believed that the pain nerve endings in the gut were only located outside the gut wall and that distension somehow ‘pulled’ on these nerve endings to create sensations of pain in the intestines,” said Professor Brookes.

“We have discovered that there are in fact nerve endings within the wall of the gut, which has changed our understanding of how pain is evoked by many gastrointestinal tract disorders.”

The gastrointestinal tract is the largest organ system in the human body and is responsible for breaking down food to give the body the nutrients it needs for energy, as well as waste disposal.

Many people experience unpleasant sensations from the gastrointestinal tract at some stage in their life, ranging from short-term nausea and vomiting to severe pain.

Discovering these nerves may help identify new targets for drugs which could create better outcomes for a range of conditions, including invoking a sense of fullness sooner in obesity, reducing heartburn episodes or better pain management.

Creating a fuller understanding of the nerve endings in the gut wall may also help researchers understand the mechanisms that underlie pain in other areas of the body, including headache, visceral organ and deep muscle pain.

Brain To Computer, A New Realm Of Possibilities
First Published: Investigator - February 2008

Exciting technology that could help users move a wheelchair or a cursor on a computer screen with a thought is currently under investigation at Flinders University and Flinders Medical Centre (FMC).

Brain Computer Interface (BCI) technology is a new area of research that has grown dramatically in the last five years.

A BCI is a computer program that measures thought patterns and translates them into actions, bypassing the peripheral nervous system.

The Flinders BCI project is a result of Sean Fitzgibbon’s PhD thesis, led by Professor Richard Clark and Associate Professor David Powers. The system measures brainwaves using electroencephalography (EEG) and identifies patterns that reflect specific thoughts, such as the intention to move a cursor.

“At this stage our research is focused on using pre-recorded EEG data from participants to trial the system offline,” said Mr Fitzgibbon. “This means collecting brain activity from a number of people and teaching the BCI to identify the relevant thought patterns.”

Simple BCI’s are currently on the market for clinical use, but the user must learn pre-defined rules to make these systems work.

The Flinders BCI is a more sophisticated system that learns from the user and adapts to each user’s specific patterns of brain activity.

In order for this system to work it must be able to interpret ‘background thoughts’ from those that make the BCI act. The Flinders BCI has a unique algorithm that identifies and discards irrelevant thought patterns to create the correct actions.

To date, the offline performance of the system has been very good. The next step will be to take the system online, with participants using it to move a cursor on a computer screen and drive a wheelchair.

BCI technology will create new ways for society to interact and communicate. But for those with disabilities, such as locked in syndrome and quadriplegic’s where the brain is still healthy but the body no longer works as it should, BCI’s will make a world of difference in quality of life.

Researchers Need Brains
First Published: Investigator - July 2007

In 1986 the first Brain Bank in South Australia was established at Flinders Medical Centre (FMC) to provide access to important human tissue for research purposes.

Since this time the SA Brain Bank has joined the Australian Brain Bank Network (ABBN), a collection of state-based brain banks which work collaboratively to facilitate brain donations, including the collection, handling and distribution of human tissue for neurological research.

Currently the SA Brain Bank houses 214 donated brains and has 185 future donors.

Research into neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Motor Neuron disease, Huntington’s and other neurological and psychiatric conditions rely heavily on comparing diseased and normal brain tissue.

“Brain donation is important for neurological research to progress,” said Ms Robyn Flook, Coordinator of the SA Brain Bank.

Ms Flook went on to say that “current brain imaging technology provides us with excellent insights into the changes that have occurred in diseased and damaged brains, however more detailed cellular examination of the living brain is not possible without doing damage.”

Understanding how brain cells function, or why they are malfunctioning, is greatly advanced by analysis of brain tissue after death. This is vital in creating a better understanding of and treatments for degenerative neurological and psychiatric conditions.

Registration to become a brain donor is slightly different from becoming an organ donor. Brains are never used for transplantation but purely for research purposes and all donor details are kept confidential. For more information contact Robyn Flook at the SA Brain Bank on 8204 4107.

Investigating Ecstasy Related Deaths
First Published: Investigator - January 2007

Every year we hear of young Australians who, after consuming MDMA (Ecstasy), develop such a high body temperature which despite urgent hospital treatment can result in death.

Professor Bill Blessing, Dr Youichirou Ootsuka and their team at Flinders Medical Centre are internationally recognised for their investigations as to how MDMA causes the body temperature to increase to such extreme levels.

“We have found that MDMA causes an abnormal reaction within the brain centres regulating the body temperature,” said Professor Blessing, Senior Consultant Neurologist. “This results in more heat being produced and less heat being lost.”

Normally, when body temperature increases, for example when you exercise, blood will flow closer to the skin so that heat can be released and the body temperature is reduced. When you are cold the reverse occurs. The brain sends messages to constrict the skin blood vessels (vasoconstriction), so that the flow of blood is directed away from the body surface, thus preventing loss of heat from the body.

Through experiments the team at Flinders Medical Centre has noted an abnormal response within the brain heat regulation mechanisms when MDMA is in the system. When a dose of MDMA is taken the skin blood vessels constrict, just as they normally do in the cold. Even though the body is becoming hot, it reacts as though the environment is cold. This is dangerous as the body also continues to create heat.

The combination of increased heat production and decreased heat loss causes the body temperature to rise to dangerous levels, causing muscle meltdown, kidney failure and fits, so that death may occur.

“Another stream of our research has been to identify a drug which can reverse the effects of MDMA,” said Professor Blessing. “We have found that the antipsychotic drug Clozapine, commonly known for its use in the treatment of schizophrenic patients, almost miraculously both reverses the extra heat production and the vasoconstriction caused by MDMA.”

Professor Blessing and his team continue to investigate the affects of MDMA with the aim of providing important information in the treatment of Ecstasy related overdoses to help save lives.

Investigation Into Brain Oedema
First Published: Investigator - July 2005

Flinders investigators have discovered a new pathway that may help treat cerebral oedema, or swelling of the brain – a common symptom of many severe brain diseases and head trauma.

Dr Alan Wilson, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Medical Imaging, and his team are researching what role a specific aquaporin plays in this condition.

Cerebral oedema is caused by an abnormal flow of water into the brain, leading to brain swelling. As the swelling is constrained within the bony skull, the pressure within the brain may increase to dangerous levels. Once this happens, blood vessels within the brain may be compressed, leading to reduced blood flow to the brain which in turn may lead to brain death and eventually death of the patient.

Until recently, the medical field did not understand the basic mechanisms behind this swelling and often extreme emergency measures needed to be taken to relieve the pressure, such as drilling drainage holes in the skull. These treatments however were used to relieve the symptoms, not to control the condition itself.

Over the last decade, a family of proteins called aquaporins has been identified that act as water channels within cell membranes. Aquaporins have been shown to play a major role in movement of water throughout cells within the body, both in health and disease.

During the last few years the significance of these proteins has begun to be more appreciated and much research undertaken. So far, eleven types of aquaporin have been found, two of which – AQP1 and AQP4 - are now known to reside in the brain. It was believed that these two aquaporins were restricted to certain brain areas, however, due to a recent discovery here at the Flinders Medical Centre by Dr Wilson, AQP1 has now been demonstrated in some additional, previously unrecognised, areas.

It is still unknown exactly what role aquaporins play in cerebral oedema, whether a positive defensive or negative role that allows the abnormal water flow.

With the help of the Flinders Medical Centre Foundation’s funding, the research team have been able to continue vital research into the role that the AQP1 plays in cerebral oedema in the hopes of someday controlling this dangerous condition.

Better Outcomes for Joint Replacement Surgery
First Published: Investigator - August 2004

The effect on the brain following joint replacement surgery will be the focus of a research study at Flinders in the coming months.

Previous studies from the USA have shown that patients who have undergone knee and hip replacements can experience micro-embolic material (numerous tiny particles of fat) lodging in the brain following surgery. This can cause marginal changes in a patient's brain function therefore effecting their recovery time.

What researchers want to know is who is at risk of this embolic phenomenon and how their outcome, following surgery, can be improved.

Working alongside Neuropsychologist Dr Anthony Kneebone, Professor Jegan Krishnan from the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery will look at 60 patients over a six-month period.

Patients will be examined the day before surgery and then three days after while still in hospital. If there are changes, this is the time they will be most marked. Patients will then be examined again six months later.

"We want to be able to measure and record changes that will allow us to identify the characteristics of those who would suffer this problem," said Professor Krishnan.

"We will look at pharmacological drugs to see if we can firstly, alter the risk, and secondly maybe vary treatment for those patients who develop this embolic occurrence."

Once assessment tools have been developed, doctors are hoping to be able to use these procedures on patients who are on the waiting list and possibly improve their outcome.

This study has been made possible through a research grant from the FMC Foundation and Professor Krishnan hopes the study will be completed by the end of the year.

Mind Over Matter - The Way Of The Future
First Published: Investigator - October 2003

Imagine being able to make a wheelchair move forward just by thinking about it?

That is what Flinders researchers are hoping to achieve as they develop technology that uses brain waves to identify specific patterns of thinking and control external devices.

The research team from the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory in the School of Psychology have been working with the Artificial Intelligence Group in the School of Informatics and Engineering on a program called a brain computer interface that provides a way to connect the brain to a computer.

Cognitive neuroscience student Sean Fitzgibbon, who is using this research project as his PhD, said that the role of a brain computer interface is to identify relevant brain waves amongst the large amount of activity in the brain.

"Different thoughts generate different patterns of brainwaves. If we can find the relevant patterns and reliably identify them, then we are in a position where we can control a wheelchair, for instance, make it move forward just by thinking about it. The brain computer interface is essentially a pattern matching device," said Sean.

Brain waves are recorded from the scalp using an electrode cap, similar to a swimming cap, with 128 recording electrodes embedded in it. The signals are fed into a computer and a program (brain computer interface) analyses the brainwaves as they occur. The program looks for specific patterns of brain waves associated with the thoughts of controlling some sort of device, such as a wheelchair.

"Ultimately, we would like to be able use the brain computer interface to control prosthetic limbs but this is long way down the track. Fine brain control is certainly something we are working towards but until then, we are hoping to have a useful device within the next couple of years." he said.

© 2016 Flinders Foundation. All Rights Reserved.