Postcard from Australia

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Emma Devenney at this year's symposium in Milan
Emma Devenney at last year’s symposium in Milan

Dr Emma Devenney is an MND Association and Neuroscience Research Australia funded PhD student investigating the Cerebellum in MND and Frontotemporal Dementia at Neuroscience Research Australia. She is finding out what role it plays in the symptoms of patients with the C9orf72 mutation. Here she blogs about her work from Australia!

Finally after more than 12 months of preparation and anticipation I touched down in Sydney to be greeted by a city in the throes of early summer. Sydney in the summer is the epitome of the Australian dream and it is easy to see how it has enticed many Irish and British immigrants to its shores. The blue skies, beautiful beaches and a lively cultural and social scene are amongst many of the cities attractions and distractions.

Neuroscience Research Australia is in the exuberant Eastern suburbs of Sydney; an area where the British and Irish expatriate communities have integrated well into Australian society and are as reliant on a daily ‘flat white’ as any self-respecting Australian. The research centre is located down the hill from the Prince of Wales hospital in the suburb of Randwick.

Over the years it has grown immensely and the new million-dollar building, with its modern design and colourful stair lighting, is testament to the success of the centre. The centre has at least 20 groups with diverse interests ranging from falls in the elderly to aboriginal health issues. As my interest lies in the crossover between motor neurone disease (MND) and frontotemporal dementia I was very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work in a group that focuses on these two devastating conditions. On top of that my supervisors are two eminent world leaders in MND and frontotemporal dementia research; Professor Matthew Kiernan and Professor John Hodges respectively.

The collaborative group, now called forefront, encompasses clinical, physiological, imaging, genetic and pathological aspects of these conditions. Working in these groups has exposed me to the research scene; I work with a variety of professionals from neuropsychologists to neuroscientists and occupational therapists as well as engineers and software programmers. My skill set has widened dramatically in this environment where knowledge is shared at every opportunity both formally and informally.emma2

Since I have been here Professor Kiernan has been given a prestigious job at the University of Sydney and the Brain and Mind Research Institute across town in Camperdown, where I now spend a few days each week. This has offered me the opportunity to include neurophysiological measures into my research and learn techniques at the cutting edge of medicine.

There is no doubt that the world of research is very different from clinical medicine and contrary to what many of my colleagues back in Belfast believe, I do not spend my days hanging out on the beach and working on only my tan! While the work is not as physically exhausting as a busy on-call neurology job, it does require patience, hard work, attention to detail and motivation to learn new skills that you never believed you would ever need – think the syntax that was used to program the old Commodore 64’s of an 80’s childhood! My week consists of research clinics Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. In between times I help out with clinical trials in MND and Frontotemporal Dementia, attend talks and conferences, present my work, and work on my research projects.

I have been given invaluable opportunities since I have been here from publishing in scientific journals to contributing to clinical and educational books. I would not have been able to accomplish any of this without wonderful colleagues always generous with their time and knowledge. There are of course trials associated with moving to a new city on the other side of the world and being so far away from family and friends is certainly difficult at times. I have been lucky to have the support of my partner who moved to Sydney with me and despite the slight pangs of homesickness I have loved every minute of my time in Sydney. The greatest recommendation I can give to studying here is that I liked it so much I am staying to do a PhD.

Finally I would like to thank the MND Association UK for all of their support in helping me accomplish these endeavors.

Hooroo from Sydney,



The MND Association’s vision is a world free from MND. Realising this vision means investing more in research, further developing partnerships with the research community, funding bodies and industry, while ensuring that advances in understanding and treating MND are communicated as quickly and effectively as possible. Our Research Development team, composed of 11 members, work hard to achieve this. Principally, the Research Information team within this are involved in communication activities including this MND Research blog.

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