Brain plasticity symposium for Auckland

19 January 2015

A world authority on the brain’s natural ability to form new neuronal connections will speak at New Zealand’s first Neuroplasticity Symposium in Auckland soon.

The symposium, at the University of Auckland’s Grafton campus on Wednesday 4 February, will feature Emeritus Professor Michael Merzenich from the University of California, the leading pioneer in brain plasticity research.

Keynote speakers include Professor Tony Hannan, an expert on gene-environment interactions and experience dependent plasticity, from the University of Melbourne; and leading neuroplasticity researchers from the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research (CBR), including Melanie Cheung, Greg Finucane, Johanna Montgomery, Cathie Stinear, and Karen Waldie.  (The CBR is sponsoring the symposium). 

The speakers will present the most recent developments on how neuroplasticity can be harnessed in novel and imaginative treatments for brain diseases, environmental enrichment for brain plasticity, the science behind neuroplasticity, and the clinical applications of these treatments.

The day will conclude with a panel discussion on neuroplasticity.

Professor Merzenich’s visit to New Zealand includes a public lecture at the University of Auckland’s Grafton campus on Tuesday 3 February (from 5.30pm to 7pm), titled “Brain Plasticity based therapeutics”.

He will also talk to audiologists on the clinical applications of auditory plasticity, particularly in relation to auditory rehabilitation. 

Professor Merzenich is a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research who led a research team that conducted extensive, original research that is the basis for the development and application of multiple-channel cochlear implants.

More recently he has dedicated his time to delivering brain plasticity-based training programmes from ‘bench to bedside’ at minimal cost. Using these therapies, he and his team have helped more than five million children overcome their learning disabilities. 

In 2002 he co-founded Posit Science, which produces and delivers computer-based programmes to help aging, psychiatrically impaired, and brain-injured populations. He has published more than 150 articles in leading peer-reviewed journals (including both Science and Nature), been granted nearly 100 patents for his work, and received numerous awards and prizes such as the Russ Prize, Ipsen Prize, Zülch Prize, Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award and the Purkinje Medal.

Professor Tony Hannan (from Australia) has made a significant scientific contribution towards understanding gene-environment interactions and experience-dependent plasticity.

He was first to demonstrate that environmental enrichment delays the onset of motor symptoms (in a Huntington’s disease mouse model).

Professor Hannan holds an ARC Future Fellowship (FT3) and an Honorary NHMRC Senior Research Fellowship, and is head of Neural Plasticity at the Howard Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, University of Melbourne.

During his career he has published more than 140 articles in leading peer-reviewed journals and received a number of awards including the British Council Eureka Prize, Federation of European Biochemical Societies Anniversary Prize and Nuffield Medical Fellowship at the University of Oxford.

Dr Melanie Cheung (Ngati Rangitihi) is chair of the Symposium. Melanie is a neurobiologist at the CBR, focusing on researching the potential of neuroplasticity to help people with Huntington’s disease.  She has just returned from seven months in the USA on a Fulbright Scholarship, working with Professor Merzenich at the Brain Plasticity Institute, on developing a neuroplasticity programme for use in her Huntington’s disease research.  Melanie is the Chair of Aotearoa Network in Indigenous Health Knowledge and Development.

Melanie was recently awarded the Huntington’s Disease Society of America’s ‘Distinguished Leadership Award’ for her dedication and leadership in international research to benefit people and families affected by Huntington’s disease.

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