Demystifying the disconnected brain: Identifying the causes of developmental brain disorders involving the corpus callosum

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1. Project summary (maximum 150 words)

Agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC) occurs when the largest connective structure in the brain, the corpus callosum, fails to fully develop, resulting in a disruption of information transfer between the left and right brain hemispheres. This results in a vast spectrum of secondary effects (e.g., sensory-motor issues, reduced cognitive processing, novel problem solving deficits, social interaction difficulties), ranging from mild to severe. I am using a new, cutting edge technology to study these developmental callosal disorders, known as track-weighted dynamic functional connectivity (TW-dFC). Using TW-dFC, I will be able to study how the brain’s structural connections give rise to its function, and how disruptions in callosal connectivity affect interhemispheric information processing. Through a better understanding of these brain mechanisms, I am optimistic that my work will provide crucial information for developing better symptom management and treatment schemes for ACC individuals. 

2. How does your project benefit Queensland? (maximum 500 words)

Agenesis of the corpus callosum is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects approximately 1 in 4000 individuals. Despite the relatively high prevalence of this condition, it receives very little attention from government funded health services. For example, ACC individuals do not automatically qualify for NDIS funding, and instead require a diagnosis of a secondary condition such as autism in order to obtain much needed support. This lack of support is devastating for those with ACC that are considered ‘intellectually normal’, but struggle with basic everyday tasks that we take for granted. A greater public awareness and support for this condition is sorely needed.

The project on which I am working is being undertaken by the Brain Development and Disorders Laboratory, led by Professor Linda Richards, at Queensland Brain Institute (QBI). The project was made possible by the support and hard work of domestic philanthropy groups, including Brain Injured Children Aftercare Research Endeavours (BICARE) and Australian Disorders of the Corpus Callosum (AusDoCC). AusDoCC is a non-profit organisation whose mission is to provide support to ACC individuals, families and caregivers, to help achieve a wider recognition of cognition and functionality. Having direct working relations with these organisations also allows valuable evidence-based research to be communicated directly to those affected by this neurodevelopmental disorder. This translation is crucial for affecting real change in the ACC community.

The outcomes from this project will also provide further benefits to Queensland health and research through a better understanding of the dynamics of brain connectivity and function, which have implications for many areas of medicine and research, ranging from developing better targeted physiological treatments for schizophrenia to improved surgical planning for the removal of brain tumours. Given that the complexity of the brain is dependent on its connectivity, which is governed by white matter tracts like the corpus callosum, it is without a doubt beneficial to better understand underlying brain dynamics using TW-dFC. Studying ACC using this method is a plausible model to translate across a plethora of neurological and psychiatric illnesses, and will further inform very critical unanswered questions about brain organization and development. 

3. What STEM promotion/engagement activities do you do/have you done? (maximum 500 words)

I am currently in my second year as a full-time medical student at the University of Queensland (UQ), and am working as a volunteer in the Brain Development and Disorders Laboratory at QBI. I will be completing my joint Medical Degree and Doctor of Philosophy over the next 6 years.

Before I enrolled at UQ medical school, I lived in Toronto, where I was a Toronto Pod Leader for 500 Women Scientists, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a scientific community that is inclusive, accessible and diverse. I have also volunteered as an administrative assistant and navigator at Toronto East General Hospital, where my duties ranged from organising slides in the pathology department to guiding patients around the hospital.

I lived in New York City while I completed my Bachelor of Science degree, and during this time I volunteered for National Chemistry Week at the New York Hall of Science, organising and performing science experiments with children. I was also a secretary for the Pre-Professional Health Society at Pace University during this time, organising Medical Field Career Fairs and fundraising events throughout the academic year for my peers. Additionally, I was an executive assistant for the TriBeta Biological Honor Society in New York City, organising seminars and inviting guest speakers to Pace University to discuss their research. I also led biology discussion groups during my upper years at Pace University, assisting first year students with their biology courses and laboratory work. Finally, I was a tutor at the Center for Academic Excellence in New York City, helping students with a variety of university subjects such as Biology, Chemistry, Organic Chemistry and Genetics.

My active engagement in STEM is of utmost importance to me, especially as a woman, as there are still many inequalities that are as yet to be addressed within STEM careers. I believe it is important for women to make themselves visible in the field as often as possible, stepping up to leadership roles and challenges, as well as embracing vulnerability in these positions. The more we do this, the more we confront the unconscious biases toward women that still linger in the STEM field today. I intend to stay actively involved in this field throughout my current education and future career as a clinician scientist, immersing myself in the countless learning experiences along the way, and to remain at forefront of novel research and change for the better. 

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