Associate Professor Helen Cooper 
University of Queensland
Project Grant $322,524 2011-2013
24 January 2017

Associate Professor Helen Cooper’s research aims is to understand the molecular mechanisms controlling the birth of new neurons in the adult brain. In the long-term, it is hoped that these insights will help to design therapeutic approaches to treat neurodegenative diseases.


More than 342,800 Australians are living with dementia. This number is expected to rise to 400,000 in less than 10 years.1

Getting older unfortunately comes with a higher risk of disease, particularly those affecting the brain. Tackling neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease is at the forefront of Associate Professor Helen Cooper’s research.

“The end goal is to design tangible therapeutic approaches to treat neurodegenerative diseases.

“However, inability to functionally replace damaged brain cells has severely limited the development of effective therapeutics to fully repair the damaged brain,” Associate Professor Cooper explained.

The team aimed to identify key molecules that can encourage the silent neural stem cells within the adult brain to reactivate and generate new neurons to replace those damaged by disease, such as stroke or dementia. To achieve this, they set out to understand the molecular mechanisms controlling the birth of new neurons from the adult stem cells.

“Our hypothesis was based on the fact that a newly-discovered protein, Neogenin, plays a key role in producing brain cells in embryos and may therefore play a similar role in the adult brain.”

When the team examined the forebrain of adult mice in which the Neogenin gene had been deleted, they observed a reduction in the number of neurons in these mice. These valuable insights may lead to strategies to stimulate the production of neurons in parts of the brain that have been damaged by disease or injury.

"A comprehensive understanding of how new brain cells are generated is essential if we are to develop effective strategies to repair the damaged brain."

The team also worked in collaboration with Associate Professor Xu and Professor Bartlett to develop a novel drug delivery system to the brain. The team discovered that very tiny particles, known as Layered Double Hydroxides (LDHs), can carry drugs into damaged neurons.

These tiny particles have the potential to deliver stem-cell activating factors directly to the brain. The team tracked the movement of these ‘vehicles’ using a fluorescent marker that is visible throughout the brain tissue.

This exciting breakthrough overcomes the limitations of other drug-delivery technology, and provides the ability to successfully transport nanoparticles into the brain without causing undesirable side effects. Previously, this has been extremely difficult to achieve without injecting directly into the brain.

Associate Professor Cooper’s research has been made possible by new technologies. Recent advances in the design of highly sensitive microscopes has made identifying, quantifying and tracking these stem cells and nanoparticles in the brain far more accurate.

Next steps:

Associate Professor Cooper and team are now looking to develop a highly effective treatment for these diseases by studying the role of Neogenin in adult brains combined with their new delivery vehicles for delivering targeted therapeutics.

What is neurodegeneration?

Neurodegenerative disease is an umbrella term for a range of conditions that lead to progressive brain damage and neurodegeneration. Examples include stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Parkinson’s disease, motor neuron diseases and Huntington’s disease.

Neurodegenerative diseases are incurable and debilitating and result in progressive deterioration and death of neurons in the human brain. Normally, neural stem cells do not produce enough neurons to adequately repair the damaged brain. This deterioration of neurons gradually causes a loss of nerve structure and function, which can severely impair cognitive abilities, restrict motor skills, and eventually lead to death.


Featured image Credit
Tony Phillips