Expert Breakfast Report for 15 May 2019: Prof John Reynolds, Brain Health Research

Johns engaging personality, sense of fun, unusual history, interest in students and fascinating research were all evident in this excellent breakfast talk.

As Director for Health Science First Year (HSFY), it must have been no surprise to Prof Reynolds that almost all the members present were HSFY students or had been - till the final introduction revealed Daniel as a geography student.

John began by noting that the problems of overcrowding in lecture theatres seen in previous years have been eradicated by the scanning process, a great improvement compared to what would sometimes happen in previous years when overcrowding led to people sitting in the aisles so no-one could leave. Because of the fire hazard, lectures could not begin until some people had left - which most often were those who were in their correct stream in the first place.

When a young person, John’s father taught him to solder and that got him interested in electronic construction, so his sights were set on electronic engineering as a career. Educated in Hastings, poor careers advice at school coupled with no family experience of going to university, resulted in John not studying chemistry in year 12. (This was partly due to John being very good at languages, rather complicating the issue. However, the combination of physics and languages was NOT a good one!). The upshot was that he was told he did not have the right background knowledge to begin study towards an engineering degree. Had an experienced family member or friend been available to advise him to undertake an intensive summer course, things might have been different, but this was not the case.

John opted to do a New Zealand Certificate in Engineering, which one could do ‘on the job’ with part-time study, and cross-transfer into electronic engineering. Problem was, he enjoyed the work so much, his university plans receded. Moving into technical and sales work, he was developing health-related equipment, which took him into hospitals. The sales part of the job meant he talked to both clinicians and patients, and became very interested in that aspect of the work, though not greatly enamoured about sales as such. Since his territory was the whole of New Zealand he found himself installing monitoring equipment in an intensive care unit over a period of winter days in a dark, cold attic in Invercargill. This persuaded him that he wanted something different.

                            “Talk to your peers and friends, get advice from people who know.”

Flatting with some nurses and medics at one point, they told him he had the right temperament to be a doctor. Revealing that he had no chemistry or biology, they told him it was still possible, “if you go to university and work hard, they can get you to a level to enable you to do it.” And so he did - and was successful in entering Medical School. At that time the early material was taught by Zoology staff, with virtually no exposure to such things as prosections until much later in the course. Having qualified, the only photograph John has of those years was taken by a nurse as he helped to make up beds!

Reminiscing about those times, he pointed out that, “it’s a really hard career, and not as satisfying or as prestigious as you might think it is, hence I do support the junior doctors as they go on strike for more manageable hours . . . the neat thing about it is you do get to meet people, you get to hear the stories . . things you would never have dreamed about - some very bad, some really lovely . . . always talk to your patients, especially with elderly people.” You get lots of chances to do this as a medical student.

                                              "Try to get a Summer Research Studentship"

Summer studentships give you a taste of research, and John did his with Prof Brian Hyland, who got him interested in neurones. Working with elderly people in rehabilitation as a physician, he noted that most of the effective work is done by physiotherapists, occupational therapists, nurses and others. He expressed his frustration at the impossibility of getting drugs into the brain to aid rehabilitation to others. Their advice was for him to get back into research, especially to repurpose drugs already approved for other things, to avoid the lengthy and expensive process of obtaining approval for human use.

The idea of doing ’a little bit of research’ swiftly became a PhD project with Brian Hyland, the plan being to return to medical practice at the end of it. But “I just loved it” - and he is still here doing it - along with 60% of his time on HSFY matters. This year is the first following a revision of that course which has pruned out a lot of the ‘embroidery’ that inevitably creeps in to papers as time goes on, hopefully adding interest but also producing a gradually increasing workload for students. Such reviews take place every five years.

            ‘Always have an alternative objective if your main one does not work out’

Prof Reynolds referred to an old calendar he still had from his undergraduate days which has on it the physiology degree he planned to do if he did not make it into medicine, and urged everyone to have such an alternative in mind.

His research emphasis is on ‘translational neuroscience’ - research that goes directly to clinical applications, with an emphasis on neurological disorders. He described how in his laboratory people record from the inside of brain cells in whole brains using tiny glass electrodes less than half a micrometer in diameter. By doing this the researchers are able to see what is happening to the circuits involving that cell. He showed a brain cell image noting where individual synapses take place at the spines on the dendrites, there being up to 100,000 spines on each neuron, with each spine having an input into whether the neuron will fire or not. Commenting on artificial intelligence in this respect, John said it is currently at a level something below 10% of the number of neurons in the human cortex, and expressed doubts that AI would ever reach the complexity of a human brain.

Prof Reynold’s research group has a large brain model of Parkinson’s disease (Parkinson’s is due to a deficiency in dopamine), and they are working on a drug delivery system. If it works, it will be upwards of five years to human application due to approval procedures. Going on to talk a little about dopamine ‘the pleasure chemical’, John said ‘it is intimately involved in positively reinforcing things that you do’, and recounted an anecdote about his son, as an infant, with a helium balloon. As all babies do, he made random movements with his arms, and eventually one of these resulted in him holding the balloon - which was obviously what he wanted to do. He had been rewarded with the dopamine system when he achieved his objective, and as time goes on the random movements disappear and we learn to move deliberately, due to the pleasure produced by dopamine release when an objective is achieved.

Part of his research enables measurement of the making of a memory, a complex topic indeed. John also touched on their work on stroke survivors, describing the inhibition from one side of the brain on movement triggered by the other side - damage to the brain resulting in reduction of this inhibition. It is thought that there may be an over-inhibition in the opposite direction, which makes rehabilitation more difficult, involving as it does the training of another part of the brain to take over the work of the damaged part. An accidental discovery in their lab indicated that a certain kind of burst stimulation could reduce this reverse inhibition, and current work is on utilising this to hasten the rehabilitation process. This has now been applied to two patients, with excellent results.

Anyone interested in this kind of work could undertake a neuroscience degree, or a medical followed by a PhD - “and, remember, if you find you have gone down the wrong career path, it is never too late to change.”

(As usual, there was more, - including some discussion of the marijuana extract cannabidiol, - but I have already well exceeded my limit of 1,000 words. Do try to attend these breakfasts to gain the full experience).

Posted: Sunday May 19, 2019