As a neurologist working at the Shanghai First People’s Hospital, Andy Liang saw his fair share of people with brain and spinal cord injuries. As a doctor trained to heal, he said the poor recovery of so many of his patients was disheartening.
“Many of the patients I treated in Shanghai had had a stroke, and many had some form of paralysis. Some of them stayed in the hospital for more than a month and still couldn’t move their body or their arms and legs,” he says.
“I also saw patients with spinal cord injuries, and more often than not we couldn’t do much to help them regain movement, as there’s no cure for this type of injury.”
Not being able to always effectively treat his patients motivated Andy to explore how he could help in other ways.
Andy sought out the world’s most prolific brain mapper, Prof George Paxinos at Neuroscience Research Australia. As a neurologist, he knew it was very important to have a detailed map of the brain and spinal cord.
"The maps we have at the moment are still relatively rough. More detail would help us target our treatments a lot more effectively,” he says.
Andy is now working with Prof Paxinos on his PhD, creating maps of the nerve fibres that connect the brain to the spinal cord in mice.
These connections are a road between the brain and the spinal cord along which the brain sends signals to muscles and organs. When someone injures their spinal cord, says Andy, this road becomes damaged and messages can’t pass through.
“Injured neurons can’t regenerate," he says. "But new connections from other healthy neurons in the brain can extend to the spinal cord. These healthy neurons could potentially compensate for the injured neurons and help the patient regain movement.”
In the future, researchers will be able to assess a spinal cord injury and, by using these maps, will be able to tell what area of the brain connects to the injured area, and therefore where to direct their therapies.
Andy is focussing on an area of the brain called the precuneiform area, which is important for movement of upper limbs and the head, as well as functions like blood pressure and heart rate.
His process involves selecting a specific section of the mouse spinal cord and injecting it with a fluorescent marker. This marker is then transported back to the brain.
Andy then looks for fluorescence in the mouse brain, mapping which bundles of neurons in the brain are glowing and hence correspond with his selected section of spinal cord.
“By doing this many times, in different parts of the spinal cord, we can see which parts of the brain are the most important for spinal control,” he says.
Andy says this project has allowed him to continue his interest in spinal cord injury – his Masters project in China looked at factors that could encourage the regeneration of neurons in spinal cord injury patients.
“There’s a lot of research that needs to be done in this area,” he says. “Only by having detailed information about the brain can we work out the best therapies and how to target them at the right part of the brain.”
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