ABOUT JOANNE DAVIDSON
Centre for Brain Research, Department of Physiology
Reducing the effects of post-natal injury
Joanne completed high school in South Africa and moved to New Zealand to start a BSc (Biomedical science) at the University of Auckland, where she was inspired by the teachings of Professor Richard Faull to pursue neuroscience.
She undertook an Honours Degree with Professor Janusz Lipski studying a model of ischemic stroke, where she discovered her passion for research. From initially studying ischemic brain injury in the ageing brain, Joanne switched to the other end of the spectrum and began to research ischemic brain injury before birth.
She went on to obtain a PhD in the Fetal Physiology and Neuroscience Group laboratory under the supervision of Professor Alistair Gunn. During this time she developed a passion for understanding the mechanisms underlying brain injury and developing novel approaches to treating it.
“I knew I wanted to do something in neuroscience and I knew I wanted to help people.”
Today Joanne is interested in understanding how brain damage occurs before and around the time of birth, and in the development of new treatments for these sick infants.
Oxygen deprivation is a major cause of fetal and neonatal brain damage and can result from knots in the umbilical cord, which can become wrapped around the fetal neck or cardiovascular collapse in the new-born infant. If the period of oxygen deprivation is sufficiently long, this can have major consequences for the fetus, including brain damage, death or lifelong disability.
Currently, the only available treatment for full-term infants that have suffered brain damage as a result of oxygen deprivation is hypothermia, which involves cooling the brain of the new-born for 72 hours.
Although this is an extremely effective treatment, not all babies will benefit and about half will develop brain damage despite treatment with hypothermia. The main aim of Joanne’s research is to discover ways to improve treatment with hypothermia either by improving the protocol itself or by discovering new treatments that can be used alongside hypothermia.
Another area that interests her is developing new treatments for babies that have suffered oxygen deprivation. Joanne has shown that blocking a particular channel, called a connexin hemichannel, found in neurons, dramatically reduces brain damage and seizure activity after oxygen deprivation.
She has established the critical role that these hemichannels play in the spread of injury within the first three hours after of oxygen deprivation in the fetal and neonatal brain. This research suggests that connexin hemichannels may be a useful target for treatments to reduce brain damage and seizures after oxygen deprivation.
Both during her postgraduate studies and as a postdoc, Joanne has been lucky to attend numerous international conferences and loves the fact that science allows her to see the world and meet researchers from so many different countries and learn from them.
“I’ve always felt that I wanted to do something with my life that would be of benefit to others.”