Young neuroscientist wins prestigious business award

Nov 12 2013

Dr Rohan Walker

Dr Rohan Walker, Newcastle Business Club’s Young Business Person award winner.

Hunter Medical Research Institute neuroscientist Dr Rohan Walker was named the Newcastle Business Club’s Young Business Person of the Year this afternoon, edging out fellow HMRI researcher Dr Luke Wolfenden and federal Liberal candidate Jaimie Abbott.

A senior research fellow with the University of Newcastle, Dr Walker is specialising in brain repair and rehabilitation. His research examines the role of microglia cells (likened to electrical junction boxes) in the central nervous system, specifically how those cells are altered by chronic stress.

“I feel honoured to have won against two very accomplished nominees,” Dr Walker said. “It also reflects positively on HMRI to have had two of the top three contenders vying for the award.”

Just three years into their research program, Dr Walker and his colleagues have established that exposure to chronic stress changes the behaviour of microglia in the brain, and that chemically inactivating microglia can significantly improve cognitive function and emotional control.

“Chronic stress is a major problem, both in the workplace and following brain injury, as it severely disrupts emotional wellbeing as well as learning and memory,” Dr Walker said.

“For such a long time we thought the information flow in the central nervous system was mediated by neurons but we have now discovered that the junction is the critical component where messages are passed.

“It was thought that glial cells were killed by exposure to chronic stress, however we have proved that they don’t die. Rather, they undergo a remarkable form of remodelling, radically changing their structure and pattern of connectivity to deal with the challenge. These are changes that we can target to limit the negative effects of chronic stress.

Dr Walker says that drugs currently used to target stress-related illnesses such as depression are not designed to work on glia cells. This research has the potential to improve future medications.

“This is a big issue, as anti-depressants are taken by an estimated 1 million Australians each year and often their efficacy is far less than what we would hope.”

Dr Walker received funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) this year to continue his and his team’s work in this area.
Dr Luke Wolfenden, a top-three finalist in the Newcastle Business Club award, is a behavioural scientist whose research program is built around a series of large systematic reviews and research trials addressing chronic disease risks.

Nationally, he has been responsible for the Australia’s largest child obesity prevention program, “Good For Kids, Good For Life”, where he led a research collaboration between the University of Sydney, University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and NSW Health.

He was named the 2012 HMRI Early Career Research of the Year and this year commenced a NHMRC Fellowship.

HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.