Research network aims to optimise brain health

A national research network, which aims to promote brain health throughout the lives of New Zealanders, has been launched.

Professor Peter Thorne seated on a bench against a wooden wall.
Professor Peter Thorne.

A national research network, which aims to promote brain health throughout the lives of New Zealanders, has been launched.

The Aotearoa Brain Project - Kaupapa Roro o Aotearoa is a nationwide collaboration between researchers, clinicians, NGOs, Māori and Pasifika communities and other members of the public.

It is led by Professor Cliff Abraham, University of Otago, Dr Julie Wharewera-Mika (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tuhoe, Te Whānau-a-Apanui), Manu Ārahi – Kaupapa Māori Clinical Psychology & Research Consultancy, and Professor Peter Thorne, Waipapa Taumata Rau, the University of Auckland.

The Aotearoa Brain Project - Kaupapa Roro o Aotearoa, launched on 17 March 2023, will include a focus on enhancing synergies between research groups around Aotearoa and training early career researchers.

“We will also have a strong parallel aim based on communication and public health initiatives,” says Professor Abraham.

Dr Wharewera-Mika says the Aotearoa Brain Project is grounded in a partnership with Māori.

“The co-partnership with Māori is a primary, fundamental aspect of what we are trying to achieve going forward and it’s been a vital part of this whole development,” she says.

“Importantly, we want to address inequities for Māori, and Pasifika, by promoting kaupapa Māori research by Māori researchers and communicators, community engagement, and similar for Pasifika.

“We are excited by the opportunities this partnership will offer to enhance brain health for Māori and Pasifika.”

The Aotearoa Brain Project was formed after Brain Research New Zealand, a national Centre of Research Excellence, was disestablished in mid-2021.

Brain Research New Zealand, which Professor Thorne and Professor Abraham co-directed, received one round of funding which was used to support research and public outreach activities, but did not receive further funding.

It built up a “wonderful ethos” of national collaborations, worked with clinicians, engaged with the public, and helped mentor and train new neuroscientists, Professor Thorne says.

“I think we changed the whole national ethos of research in this area through this collaborative effort we set up,” he says.

“We didn’t want that to disappear and fade away.”

Members and non-members were enthusiastic and wanted to keep the work going, so the Aotearoa Brain Project was developed.

While Brain Research New Zealand focused on aging-related neurological disorders, the Project, launched mid-March 2023, will support brain health throughout the course of life.

The Project, while not a Centre of Research Excellence, will still provide opportunities for people to connect and develop synergistic research projects.