A/Professor Stephanie Brown

Schizophrenia Research

‘Neurobiological Investigation of Interstitial White Matter Neurons in a Maternal Immune Activation Model of Schizophrenia’

University of Newcastle, NSW
Awarded 2014-2017

“There is a building body of evidence that suggests exposure of mothers to viruses during pregnancy increases the risk of their children to developing schizophrenia.”

Researcher Profile

Ryan Duchatel was awarded and undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science from the University of Newcastle (Dec 2012). His research career began as a volunteer in A/Prof Paul Tooney’s laboratory in his first year of undergraduate study (2010). In 2011 Ryan was employed as a Technical Assistant by A/Prof Paul Tooney’s laboratory, working on a project called the Australian Rural Mental Health Survey (ARMHS) where he purified DNA from saliva samples taken for the study. Over the course of his degree Ryan excelled in research aspects of the B. Biomedical Science and was awarded a School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy Summer Research Scholarship in 2010/2011 (also in A/Prof Tooney’s laboratory). In his final year of undergraduate study (2012), Ryan completed a research elective course (HUBS3409 Projects for Biomedical Science), learning to use immunofluorescence and microscopy techniques to study neurons in the white matter in the brains of mice. Attesting to his passion and dedication over this project he received a High Distinction grade in this course.

In the summer of 2012/2013, Ryan completed another School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy Summer Research Scholarship where he further developed immunohistochemistry techniques required to characterise neurons specifically located in the white matter of the brain (the topic of the current proposal). At the end of 2012 Ryan became the youngest affiliated researcher in the Hunter Medical Research Institute. In 2013, Ryan began a B.Biomedical Science (Hons) under the supervision of A/Prof Paul Tooney and Dr Phillip Jobling where he is investigating why there is an increase in the number of neurons in the white matter in the brains of people with schizophrenia. During this year, Ryan has continued to build his research expertise, and gained skills in animal handling, processing of brain tissue, immunohistochemistry and neuronal counting. In 2014, Ryan will continue this work with the support of Australian Rotary Health to further the novel role these white matter neurons may play in the development of schizophrenia.

Project Summary

The proposed PhD project seeks to determine how infections during pregnancy contribute to the development of schizophrenia. There is a building body of evidence that suggests exposure of mothers to viruses during pregnancy increases the risk of their children to developing schizophrenia. In addition to this, recent data suggests that people with schizophrenia have an increased number of neurons in the white matter of their brains. These white matter neurons (WMNs) are poorly characterised and their role in normal or pathological brain functions are unknown. For example, it is unclear whether they are electrically active or able to communicate to other neurons and thus whether they can influence brain function. One hypothesis that integrates this knowledge of increased schizophrenia susceptibility through maternal infection and the putative role of WMNs is that maternal viral infection may trigger the build-up of neurons in the white matter that may in turn contribute to the development of the changes in behaviour observed in schizophrenia.

This project will: 1) use animal brain tissue to further characterise the basic functions and biology of WMNs and determine if they are electrically active and whether they have the capacity to influence the activity of other cell in the brain; and 2) use an animal model of maternal infection to determine if maternal viral infection during pregnancy increases the number of WMNs. The results of these studies will help determine if WMNs could be a novel target for the development of new treatments in schizophrenia. In addition, this work will help to understand how infections during pregnancy influence brain development and provide new insights into prevention of mental illness.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Paul Tooney, Dr Phillip Jobling & Dr Brett Graham