August 2018 | Issue 37
LKCMedicine Professor wins MOE Tier 3 grant to lead dementia research

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The time is right, says Professor of Neuroscience and Mental Health George Augustine, to embark on the research into dementia that’s been top of his priority list for the past two to three years. But it’s been on his mind far longer than that, for the last decade at least. Now with an MOE Tier 3 Type B five-year grant of $19, 441, 800 and technology aligned, Prof Augustine can finally launch his full-blown research plan. NTU is disbursing five PhD Research Scholarships and five Post- Doctoral Scholarships on this platform.

A pioneer member of the LKCMedicine faculty, Prof Augustine will bring his previous research experience to bear on this project. He studied the synapses of frogs and horse-shoe crabs as a graduate student at the University of Maryland, and squid giant neurons while holding a postdoctoral position at UCLA. He moved on to studying the calcium channels in squid at USC and followed on by joining the Erwin Neher-Bert Sakmann 1991 Nobel Prizewinning team at Max Planck Institute that discovered the function of single ion channels in the brain. He rose through the ranks at Duke to gain the GB Geller Professor of Neurobiology chair, where
he switched from using squid to mice as study subjects, and moved on from single cell research to whole brain circuits. When Duke-NUS was set up in 2005, he took the opportunity to charge ahead with developing optogenetic technologies while monthly commuting between the two schools for two years.

“The Singapore government has prioritised dementia research, so there’s a national imperative to figure
out how we can help with the dementia epidemic that’s about to hit Singapore,” said Prof Augustine. “The incidence of dementia is expected to quadruple by 2050, which is related to the ageing population.”

Of equal, if not more importance, is the scientific reason for going into dementia research now. “The key breakthrough is the development of optogenetics: to use light to interrogate the function of specific kinds of neurons in the brain,” said Prof Augustine.

Human genetics studies also come into play as they have shown that there are certain genetic mutations that are associated with dementia.

While dementia is a broad category of symptoms ranging from memory loss, declining reasoning, and personality change, the most common form being Alzheimer’s, Prof Augustine’s research will be delving into what goes wrong with the circuitry of the brain in dementia. “We’ve selected three parts of the brain to study – the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus and the cerebellum – using five mice models: Alzheimer’s,
frontotemporal dementia, Down’s syndrome, Huntington, and possibly stress-related dementia. That’s already a pretty big job for the next five years,” he elaborated.

Prof Augustine also has another objective in mind. He hopes this research can serve as a mechanism for
connecting the neuroscience community of Singapore for more “scientific firepower”, Prof Augustine said, as the majority of investigators are outside of LKCMedicine. “There are very good neuroscientists in Singapore but we’re dispersed. Now we can get them to work together towards a common objective,” he added.

Prof Augustine’s three goals are to identify the circuit defects in the three parts of the brain, determine which are the ones causing dementia and ultimately, what causes the defects. “The third goal is the most ambitious and open-ended, but that’s the most important one when we look into the future beyond our five-year scope, to start fixing dementia,” he said.