Ruth Empson

Understanding how the brain works is one of the biggest challenges for science.

Professor Ruth Empson is fascinated by the brain, and her curiosity about its role in movement is contributing to world knowledge, thanks to investment from the Otago Community Trust.

Her dream is to better understand how different parts of the brain work together, with the aim of helping humans with debilitating movement problems.

Controlling our movements in the context of the world around us comes from a particular part of the brain - the cerebellum. It receives information from the sensory systems and regulates motor movements to co-ordinate actions like posture, balance, coordination, and speech.

When this goes wrong movement is affected. Understanding how this works could therefore potentially help people with poorly-treated disorders like motor neuron disease, spinal injury and Ataxia, a degenerative disease of the nervous system.

However, understanding how the brain works is one of the biggest challenges for science.

Ruth’s studies at the University of Otago Brain Health Research Centre laboratory combine electrophysiology, live imaging and molecular approaches to try and better understand the neuronal connections and circuits that makes up the brain.

She and her team are the only New Zealanders currently studying the electrical activity that links two key parts of the brain – the cerebellum and the motor cortex, and have designed a unique method to interpret these  complex interactions in real time in a mice model.  This is something international researchers are following with interest.

It has been particularly challenging to discern the active maps that track the connections from the "noise" or artifacts that make brain images more difficult to interpret - this is information that isn't necessarily part of the brain function.

"We're really grateful to the Otago Community Trust (via the Otago Medical Research Foundation) for backing us on this – the technical process and the software has been really challenging and time-consuming to develop; now having it working has kick-started further work that can help us to pinpoint the specific disruptive areas of the brain that influence movement."

"We've been able to answer one crucial question, and that seeding money will open the way for people to answer a lot more and attract further health research investment into in-depth studies.  It's incredibly valuable."

"But the OMRF fund also doesn't just help answer science questions it also benefits careers. We need good science and IT talent to make it happen - the funding meant we attracted young scientists to work on this project who can publish and get on the career ladder."

"All this enables Otago to punch above its weight in the field of Neuroscience, despite our physical distance from the rest of the world."