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13 June 2017

CANTAB Research Grant Supports New South Wales Brain Donor Program

Winner of the 2016 Global Prize for the CANTAB Research Grant, Toni McCrossin, Clinical Officer for the New South Wales Brain Tissue Resource Centre (NSWBTRC) explains how access to CANTAB cognitive assessments are supporting their project.

I was absolutely delighted and excited to find that I had been selected as the winner of the 2016 CANTAB Research Grant. In my role as Clinical Officer at the New South Wales Brain Tissue Resource Centre (NSWBTRC)  I coordinate a brain donor program called Using our Brains (UoB). This program was established in 2002 to facilitate people to consent to donate their brain and spinal cord at death for neuroscience research. The NSWBTRC is located within the University of Sydney, Australia. The centre provides brain and nervous tissue to national and international researchers studying disorders of the brain. 

Our research group is interested in exploring the relationship between ageing, brain function and lifestyle habits, such as nutrition, alcohol use and sleep. A comprehensive data set relating to the medical history of each pre-consented brain donor is collated and reviewed annually. Many UoB donors have been on the program since it was launched and having this longitudinal data is a powerful tool for studying health outcomes. Initial assessments were conducted face-to-face using the paper-based tools of the time and unfortunately, with limited resources, these were concluded. Hence my appreciation for the opportunity this grant has allowed.

The use of the CANTAB assessments will provide baseline cognitive data of the donors, as well as the opportunity for follow-up assessments. This information will be correlated with medical and lifestyle data to assess any effects on brain function over the years. The donors are invited to participate in other research projects of various disciplines and having this data will definitely enhance the research potential and outcomes for the future.

One of the other benefits of this project also relates to building a rapport with the donors themselves. As with many longitudinal studies keeping participants engaged and active in the study can be difficult due to other factors e.g. change of contact details. Therefore being able to be part of this cognitive study also provides an opportunity for donor engagement as well as education. There is a strong interest by donors in understanding their brain function and how to keep it going!

Our study started early in the year with Sydney undergoing an incredible heatwave, not the best when trying to encourage donors to leave their cool house to visit our centre. Though with much encouragement our current participants mostly aged 65 plus years, the oldest is 93, have enjoyed the experience and showed they were tech savvy. A couple of my checklist items are `do they require glasses or is the hearing aid volume enough` prior to starting. The participant can do the test independently which is an advantage over the previous face-to-face assessments.

The battery of CANTAB tests chosen to be the most suitable for our cohort are:

Other tests performed within the project include height, weight, waist circumference, blood pressure as well as mood, sleeping pattern and nutrition. In addition to these tests, a fasting full biochemistry profile was taken including Vit B1; Vit B12 & folate; fasting glucose; HbA1c and TFTs.

The project is now moving forward and can report that the vast majority of participants have really enjoyed the testing process. Using CANTAB has been an invaluable tool in measuring cognitive function across many age groups. We are currently still undergoing testing of our donors and aim to have more specific outcomes towards the end of the year. It will be interesting to compare these measures and correlate cognition and lifestyle factors with ageing to our data set and compare and correlate as the years’ progress.

Once a cognitive baseline is established, it is anticipated the New South Wales Brain Tissue Resource Centre (NSW BTRC) would follow up with further testing in 2-3 years to compare the data using the same CANTAB testing assessments. We are hoping to roll out the latest online testing using CANTAB to our regional donors to engage and enrich the program fully.

Finally, a huge thank you to the CANTAB team who have been incredibly supportive and helpful with various questions throughout this project.

Tags : cantab research grant | cognitive testing | research funding | brain health | brain donor program

Toni McCrossin, Clinical Officer
​New South Wales Brain Tissue Resource Centre (NSWBTRC)