The electrifying future of New Zealand brain research

Neuroscientist Dr John Reynolds has enjoyed a somewhat unorthodox career trajectory - from soldering LED lights onto a stadium scoreboard, to experimenting with the circuitry of the human brain.

Dr John Reynolds

Now a Professor specialising in translational neuroscience at the University of Otago Medical School, his insatiable curiosity has seen Reynolds make breakthrough discoveries in Parkinson’s diagnosis, and develop an electrifying stroke recovery solution that has had success in its early stages.

Starting his working life as an electronics technician, Reynolds soon began working designing medical technologies. “I was in a sales role, and found clinicians kept asking me complex questions about how things worked. I thought it would be nice to go and learn.” He studied medicine at Otago, before a two-year stint working in a rehabilitation unit at Whangarei Hospital.

“As an older student I gravitated to rehabilitation - what can we do to help people with neurological disorders? But I came to realise medical staff aren’t the ones who lead that - it is the whanau (family), the physios, nurses, social workers. Then my next questions were: ‘Why haven't we got better treatment? Wouldn’t it be nice to learn more about the brain?”
 
Reynolds returned to Otago University to undertake a PhD in Neuroscience in 1997, and some 22 years later, he remains as a professor at his alma mater, where he leads a small but significant group in basal ganglia research.
 
“The basal ganglia is a very technical term for a small group of brain areas that are very important. When it goes wrong you can get a multitude of common disorders - Parkinson, Huntington's, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, psychotic disorders, drug addiction, Tourette’s… It’s the part of the brain involved in processing the outside world and dealing with it, and it can lead to common and very debilitating brain disorders.”
 
Reynolds says brain research is an area in which New Zealand excels: “We have a Centre of Research Excellence called Brain Research NZ Rangahau Roro Aotearoa which encompasses four universities across New Zealand and is an easy vehicle for productive collaboration across the country. It really stands high on the international stage.
 
“On top of that, the Brain Bank initiated by Sir Richard Faull in Auckland is one of the most successful brain banks in the world in terms of what it has discovered. Research involving a long term Parkinson's cohort study in Christchurch has been very valuable in making strides into why people with Parkinson’s can develop dementia. And then there’s the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which has followed 1032 people since the 1970s. We are actually about the age now where brain disorders can start to appear in those participants, and we have 45-odd years of data where we can look at the factors that may have been caused that.
 
“All up, it forms a strong contingent of people, all attacking different areas of neurological disorders. We have to try and unlock the secrets of the brain to fix them.”
 
Reynolds has had some success with the latter: in a world-first, he has championed a new way to help people recover from stroke, by implanting an electrode into the undamaged side of the brain. While he is quick to point out the research is in its very early stages, this non-traditional approach has already had positive results.

Reynolds theorised that circuits in the healthy side of the brain were inhibiting the damaged side, limiting its long-term recovery. Working with pioneering Belgian neurosurgeon Dirk de Ridder, they developed a novel stimulation approach and put it to the test.

During surgery, an electrode is placed over the brain's motor cortex, which controls movement. A wire is tunnelled under the skin to the chest, where a stimulator is implanted - similar to a pacemaker. "What we are trying to do is allow parts of the brain to wake up during that session and form new connections."

Two men volunteered to trial the device, with exciting outcomes. One, 61-year-old Paul Robertston-Linch, had lost the use of his right arm and hand in a stroke four years ago. From being unable to grip anything when he started, he could lift 7kg at the end of the treatment. Robertston-Linch has described the treatment as ‘life-changing’, enabling him to regain fine motor skills, from opening a door to holding his toothbrush.

The Otago University team now hope to be able to coordinate a bigger trial, which they hope will lead to this technology being widely accepted for the treatment of stroke patients.

Beyond that, Reynolds’ team is looking at a new diagnostic test to try to catch the early onset of Parkinson's disease. The simple behavioural test could be given in the GP surgery, and would be a precursor to existing complicated tests.

Reynolds lists other groundbreaking work being done by his peers: his Otago colleague, Dr Louise Parr Brownlie, is researching the thalamus and the potential to bypass the basal ganglia to treat Parkinson's. In collaboration with other New Zealand researchers in many disciplines, Reynolds is looking at how dopamine could be better applied in the treatment of Parkinson's.

“New Zealand’s strong collaborations between research and clinicians mean we’re really good at translating things into action.”
 
The potential to strengthen those collaborations even further will come as New Zealand hosts the 14th edition of the International Basal Ganglia Society (IBAGS) Meeting in 2021. Reynolds hopes to attract some 250-400 leaders in the field from around the world.
 
“It’s of real value to get those people into our backyard and seeing what we are doing. It’s good for our young scientists to learn from them. And we hope to build collaborations with international scientists; they can see how easily we can do things. I think it will be good for the public of New Zealand too; we hope to have significant spin off public talks around related brain disorders.”
 
This edition of the event will take place in Blenheim, with Reynolds optimistic the draw of the Marlborough Sounds and its natural beauty will attract international delegates.
 
“IBAGS has been held in New Zealand before, at Waitangi in 2001, hosted by the University of Auckland. In terms of collegiality and networking, that has been regarded as one of the best conferences. We’ve matured to a level we’d like to show them the South Island. It’s a small group working in this area, but we have a lot of very good science going on here, enough to make a big difference on the world stage.
 
“It will be a great opportunity to showcase the tremendous stuff going on in New Zealand.”