Mary Overton Fellowship: Worms the key to understanding brains

Posted 17 Jun 2021

New research at Flinders is using tiny worms to understand how human brains learn, with hopes of helping those with chronic pain and neurodegenerative disorders.

Dr Yee Lian Chew has been awarded Flinders Foundation’s Mary Overton Senior Research Fellowship in Neuroscience, bringing her expertise from Cambridge UK and The University of Wollongong to establish a new research laboratory at Flinders.

Using Nematodes, one of the smallest worm species measuring just 1mm in length, Dr Chew is seeking to understand how the brain learns in one of the simpler forms of animal life – including both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ learning.

“There are about 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain, but that’s just too big for us to explore in great detail,” Dr Chew explains.

“In contrast, the worm has about 300 neurons, which is few enough that we can name all of them and know exactly how each one is connected to one another.

“Because we know worms can also learn, we know there must be something pretty fundamental in those 300 neurons so we’re trying to solve what that is.”

By labelling the worm’s neurons with a fluorescent protein, Dr Chew can image their brains, visualise changes, and tag neurons with activity sensors. It’s knowledge she hopes will contribute to a greater understanding of neurodegenerative processes and chronic pain management research in humans.

“Chronic pain is something that affects lots of people, but current therapies are really limited to opioid drugs which work in the short-term but are highly addictive and lose their effectiveness over time,” Dr Chew says.

“We’re trying to rethink chronic pain management, so my work really starts at the beginning by looking at the underlying cause of chronic pain which is the sensitisation of pain receptors - a form of ‘bad learning’.

“In worms, we’ve identified a neurochemical that is required for this sensitisation process and we’re now trying to see if we can ‘turn off’ sensitisation so people don’t constantly feel pain, or feel pain when things are actually harmless.

“If we can solve this, then it could lead to finding other strategies to treat chronic pain besides opioids.”

The Mary Overton Fellowship is made possible thanks to a generous gift in Will left by Mary Overton following her passing in 2002. A generous supporter of both the arts and health and medical research, Mary’s generosity has seen four fellowships awarded in her name to bring international neuroscience research experts to Flinders for five-year terms.

Previous fellows – Professor Rainer Haberberger (Germany), Dr Hakan Muyderman (Sweden) and Associate Professor Yoichiro Otsuka (Japan) - have had great success, winning large funding grants and making new discoveries across pain signalling, stroke mechanisms, body temperature regulation and fever responses, and respiratory systems.

Dr Chew, who is also supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Rebecca L Cooper Medical Foundation, said it was an honour to receive the fellowship:

“This generous support will make such a difference for our project as it gives us funding security and allows us to think further into the future to really work on finding something no one else knows,” Dr Chew says.

Professor Damien Keating, Head of the Molecular Biosciences theme within the Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute (FHMRI) which hosts Dr Chew, said:

“We work side by side with Flinders Foundation and its generous donors with the shared goal of positively impacting the health of others. This level of philanthropic support provides us the opportunity to attract leading mid-career researchers in Australia.

“Dr Chew has already amassed a unique and impressive research record and our goal is to provide a platform for her to continue this here at FHMRI as she emerges as an international leader in her field.”


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