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Neuroscience's rising star

If someone had told Vicki Chrysostomou ten years ago that she’d be training mice to swim in an effort to prevent glaucoma, she’d have raised her eyebrows.image-tools (1)

Now this unusual pastime is part the neuroscientist’s daily routine as she seeks to discover if exercise can help to protect the optic nerve from the harmful effects of ageing.

Vicki’s fascination with the inner workings of the brain began during her Honours year in Medical Science where she studied neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“The brain is a curious organ. Understanding its architecture and how it influences the rest of the body can help us to solve the mysteries of brain-related diseases,” Vicki said.

These days, Vicki is a post-doctoral research fellow in CERA’s Glaucoma Unit, where she and her colleagues are investigating the role of ageing in glaucoma.

Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, the link between the eye and the brain that transfers visual information.

As we age, the function of our mitochondria, the part of the cells responsible for energy production, declines. CERA researchers believe that this decline makes the optic nerve vulnerable to injuries that lead to glaucoma.

Vicki’s study was inspired by the discovery that diet restriction can dramatically improve mitochondrial function and the health of the optic nerve.

“While the results are exciting, dietary restriction has obvious limitations, so our focus has been to find other ways to improve mitochondrial function,” Vicki said.

According to Vicki, exercise could be the alternative.

“Exercise activates many of the same pathways as diet restriction, including improved mitochondrial function. It also protects against a range of diseases. The effect it has on eye health, however, is largely unknown,” she said.

To test the hypothesis, Vicki is putting middle-aged mice through a vigorous swimming regime. The mitochondrial function of the mice will be tested before and after they are exercised.

Vicki expects that the mitochondria in the exercised mice will stand up against the aging process better than those of the non-exercised mice.

“Doctors regularly prescribe exercise to guard against heart disease and hypertension. One day, they may give the same advice to protect against eye disease,” she said.

Vicki was recently awarded a grant by the Ophthalmic Research Institute of Australia and Glaucoma Australia Inc to continue her work.