Professor Perry Bartlett. Photo: Richard BriggsProfessor Perry Bartlett has dedicated his working life to studying the human brain.
In the 1990s, he co-led a scientific team that discovered that stem cells in the brain could produce new neurons. It was a finding that gave hope that there may one day be a cure for diseases like dementia.
He moved from Melbourne to Brisbane 12 years ago to establish the Queensland Brain Institute, which has grown from a team of 10 to about 450 and has received more than $150 million in funding over a decade.
The institute, based at the University of Queensland in St Lucia, now has 35 lab teams trying to understand how the brain works.
“In terms of an institute who really focuses on fundamental discoveries and how brain circuitry and learning and memory works, we’re probably one of the largest institutes in the world,” he said.
He said cooperation was vital to their success.
“It’s very important to let the best and the brightest people to go at it, somewhat individually, but what one needs is the ability then to take those discoveries and investigate very rapidly how important they are and how they apply to diseases or to learning across the board,” he said.
“That requires teams of people to do it.”
About 332,000 Australians currently have dementia, but without a cure that number is expected to triple by 2050.
Professor Bartlett said in order to prevent this, scientists needed to better understand the brain before trying to repair it.
“It is a long game, it’s a tough game,” he said.
Given institutes like QBI receive a bulk of their funding from grants, Professor Bartlett says there was an increasing trend of governments and research councils placing higher expectations on short-term results.
“Short-term funding leads to people doing non-risk research, which usually doesn’t have any significant output in terms of discoveries and innovation,” he said.
“The US, Korea, China and Japan all understand that unless governments back that discovery phase then no-one else will. If you don’t support that as a government then you don’t have anything that industry can work on downstream.”
“We may well lose our ability to be at the forefront of discoveries, and this country has done very well especially in the biomedical sciences.”
That said, Professor Bartlett said neurological research had reached an exciting phase.
Researchers at QBI can now analyse individual brain cells in mice, and are not far behind with humans.
“We’re getting to the stage now where we can nearly do everything in the human that we can do in animals. The next 10 years is going to be very much focused on to use this technology to look at human function, rather than animals functions,” he said.
Professor Bartlett still enjoys his time in the lab and heads up a team that last year analysed how the loss of neurons is linked to the loss of cognitive function. The team also researched treatment of spinal cord injury.
Now 67, Professor Bartlett said he would remain director of QBI for at least another year, after which he planned to spend more time in the lab.
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