Spectrum of research

Euan MacDonald Centre researchers are committed to understanding what causes nerve damage in MND, and using this information to find ways to slow, stop and eventually reverse it.

Patients are at the heart of what we do

clinical researchers walking_web The journey through our spectrum of research begins and ends with the patients in the Clinic.

As well as providing advice and support, your neurologist (Davenport, Chandran, Swingler, Gorrie, Pal) may discuss participation in clinical research. This can take many forms (for examples, visit our clinical research page). Simply by consenting to include your name and clinical details on a database, we can build up an ever-more accurate profile of MND: its incidence and clinical course, and potential association with lifestyle and environmental factors.

How many words can you think of that begin with the letter h?

brain scanSome people might volunteer to undergo psychological tests of language, memory and thinking that have been designed to pin-point problems in very specific brain processes (Abrahams, Bak). This can be complemented by hi-tech brain scanning (Bastin) that lets the researchers actually see the brain “in action” and compare the brains of MND patients with those of healthy volunteers. Post-mortem brain samples can be invaluable for investigating the mechanisms of cell death (Smith).


It’s all in the genes

chromosome analysisDNA can be extracted from a small blood or saliva sample and can be stored in a DNA bank (Swingler) for many years.  When samples have been collected from enough people, the molecular biologists can try to identify tiny genetic changes that occur more frequently in patients than in unaffected people. A small proportion of MND patients have relatives affected by the same condition (Gorrie). That can be very helpful as it can give us a “shortcut” to identifying the rogue genes.

Cells that glow in the dark

cells that glow in the darkGenes are a code for making all the components of a functioning cell, and it is at the cellular stage that most of the research effort at the Euan MacDonald Centre is focused. The investigators use high-powered microscopes to observe cell number, size and appearance, or even individual proteins that have been tagged with a fluorescent marker to make them visible. Biochemical assays are used to analyse cell constituents in the test tube. Researchers can also measure the electrical activity that is a hallmark of functioning nerve cells grown in a dish (Miles, Wyllie).

Our cellular research spans the anatomy of the nervous system, from the cell bodies and projections (Brophy) to the junctions between nerves (synapses) (Gillingwater) and with muscles (neuromuscular junctions) (Ribchester, Parson) and the supporting cells, glia (Chandran, Brophy). We study both fundamental cell function (Abbott, Keegan, Mahad) and what goes wrong under conditions of cell stress (Hardingham) or genetic mutation (Skehel).

Of mice and men…and fish and flies

zebrafishBecause it is difficult to study living human brain and spinal cord cells, many researchers use “model organisms”. These all have different advantages: for instance zebrafish nerves can regenerate (Becker, Lyons), fruit flies are easy to modify genetically (Pennetta) and mice are more similar to humans. Horses sometimes develop a form of MND too (Hahn). All of our animal research is conducted under the best possible conditions and is strictly regulated.

The stem cell revolution

stem cell revolutionHuman stem cells are rapidly becoming an extremely useful tool. Stem cells can be derived from embryos or re-programmed from another cell type (e.g. skin), and can then be chemically induced to form nerves and supporting cells (astrocytes) in a dish (Kunath, Wilmut). This provides an indefinite source of cells for experiments; they can be particularly useful if the cells have been derived from an MND patient (Chandran, Miles). For more information, read Motor Neurone Disease: how can stem cells help?: a fact-sheet produced by our colleagues at EuroStemCell.

Hear my voice

binary peopleIt is possible to use informatics to dissect an individual’s voice such that it can be re-synthesised digitally (Yamagishi). The aim of the Voicebank research project is to provide bespoke text-to-speech technology in voice synthesis systems. Collaborations on this project with our colleagues at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Speech Technology Research illustrates our commitment to use innovative approaches to make a difference to patients’ lives. For more information on the Voicebank research project email us at info@smart-mnd.org .


Joined-up working

joined-up workingBecause the fundamental mechanisms of nerve function and degeneration are many, complex and are shared among different clinical conditions, it is essential that our work is inter-disciplinary and collaborative. The focus of Jackson‘s work is spinal cerebellar ataxia; Gillingwater‘s is spinal muscular atrophy, and that of Sieger is the brain’s immune system. Studying a range of conditions is very important as it permits us to compare and contrast what happens at the cellular level with the clinical presentation. We also have many collaborators locally, nationally and internationally – too numerous to list – whom we value tremendously.