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University of Aberdeen news

The latest study and research news from the University of Aberdeen

July 2012

May 2012

April 2012

March 2012


Irish choughs invade Cornwall

The red-billed chough stands proud on the Cornish coat of arms but the species became extinct in the Duchy in 1947, denuding Cornwall of one of its most charismatic birds and cultural symbols.

That was until three choughs of unknown origin appeared in Cornwall in 2001 and founded a new breeding population, restoring the ‘Cornish chough’ to its historic home and causing great excitement among birdwatchers and conservationists alike.

But where did the three pioneer choughs come from?

Until now, they were speculated to have travelled from chough populations in south Wales or Brittany.

But now some clever genetic detective work has suggested that the Cornish pioneers came from even further afield – Ireland.

Researchers collected moulted feathers that were naturally dropped by the Cornish choughs, and by choughs in other populations across Europe.

Scientists from the University of Aberdeen then extracted DNA from the feather tips, and compared the DNA sequences of the new Cornish choughs with those of choughs living elsewhere.

By far the best match to the Cornish choughs was the Irish choughs, suggesting an unexpected Celtic origin for the new Cornish birds.

Dr Jane Reid, Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University, said: ‘We would never have known the origin of the new Cornish choughs without the DNA analysis – we didn’t guess that they would have come from Ireland.’

Claire Mucklow, of the RSPB, added: ‘We assumed those intrepid colonists would have come from closer populations, how wonderful that they have turned out to be Irish! The return of choughs to Cornwall has been very significant, not just in terms of conservation but in terms of Cornwall’s cultural heritage.’

The new Cornish chough population is now going from strength to strength; five pairs bred successfully in 2012. The future success of the population is being ensured by conservation organisations and farmers who are working to provide suitable habitat, and by volunteers who provide round-the-clock surveillance of nests.

With recent sightings of Welsh choughs in north Devon, there is potential for a merging of Celtic chough diversity in southwest England, which researchers say can only be positive for the future prospects of this enigmatic species.

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Scheme offers opportunities for Brazilian students

The University of Aberdeen is participating in a Brazilian Government scholarship scheme to give students from the country the opportunity to study at institutions across the globe.

The University is one of 77 UK institutions involved in the Science without Borders programme.

The scheme will enable 100,000 students to undertake degree courses in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the creative industries, at universities in countries including the UK.

Up to 10,000 Brazilian students will be given the opportunity to study one year study abroad programmes, full PhDs, Sandwich PhDs and exchanges at postdoctoral research level in the UK over the next four years.

The application process for undergraduate Brazilian students interested in participating went live on 28 April and students have until 15 May 2012 to make their applications.

The first cohort of successful students to receive scholarships though the scheme, will embark on degree courses at the University of Aberdeen in September.

Welcoming the scholarship programme, Professor Albert Rodger, Vice-Principal for External Affairs at the University of Aberdeen said: ‘The Science without Borders programme is an exceptional addition to the University of Aberdeen’s strong portfolio of scholarships, which help provide students from across the globe opportunities to study at this institution.

‘Recipients of the scholarships will have the chance to develop skills and expertise in which will position them well for future employment opportunities, whilst also benefitting from the unique student experience that Aberdeen offers.’

Dr Joanna Newman, Director of the UK HE International Unit which is administrating the scheme in the UK said: ‘Higher education institutions in the UK have a strong reputation internationally with both employers and governments and our involvement in this scheme is testament to that. We are exceptionally proud of all the institutions taking part; they represent the range and diversity of the Higher Education sector. The common strand amongst them is that they are defined by quality and we know they will offer Brazilian students the very best student experience. This programme will bring mutual benefits to the Higher Education sectors in both countries and both the UK and Brazil are committed to building on this successful partnership to support longer term collaboration.’

For more information regarding the scheme including eligibility criteria and how to apply visit the UK Higher Education International Unit website or the University of Aberdeen website.

The deadline for undergraduate applications is 15 May 2012.

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New money for research to halt honey bee killer

A major investment from public and private sector organisations is helping scientists to develop completely new ways of tackling the biggest killer of honey bees worldwide – the bloodsucking Varroa destructor mite.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen and the National Bee Unit, part of the Food and Environment Research Agency, have worked out how to ‘knock down’ genes in the parasitic mite causing it to die.

So far the work has only been done in the lab but now the team can take their work a step closer towards developing a product that could help beekeepers thanks to funding worth over a quarter of a million pounds from Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Vita (Europe) Ltd.

Dr Alan Bowman, who is heading up the research, said: ‘Honey bees are incredibly important because of their pollination of flowers of both wild and farmed plants.

‘But their numbers are seriously declining year on year and while there are probably several reasons for this, one of the most important factors is Varroa destructor that sucks the blood from bees and transmits serious viral diseases.

‘There is an urgent need to develop a varroa-specific, environmentally friendly treatment or some method of overcoming the varroa’s resistance mechanism to existing treatments and that’s what we are now working towards.’

Max Watkins, Technical Director of Vita (Europe) Ltd, a major funder of the research, said: ‘Finding treatments that kill varroa mites, but don’t harm honeybees, bee products or the environment is not easy. The challenge is heightened because the relatively short life cycle of the varroa mite means that resistance to a single treatment can often develop quite quickly unless beekeepers alternate treatments of different types. Vita is therefore supporting this exciting and innovative research and hopes that an effective and environmentally sensitive treatment can eventually be developed at a cost that is affordable to beekeepers across the globe.’

Dr Giles Budge, from the National Bee Unit at Fera (the Food and Environment Research Agency) added: ‘We are delighted to be in a position to progress this research, playing our part facilitating the translation of science from brilliant academics at Aberdeen to a company like Vita which has an established record of research, development and marketing of new honey bee health products. It is particularly exciting to see our work move from the bench into products which could become commercially available to help beekeepers.’

Researchers will create and scour databases of all the varroa genes in a bid to identify the ones that can be effectively and safely targeted by potential new treatments.

Dr Bowman added: ‘We rely on honey bees to pollinate our crops and add variety to our diets, which is why there is a real need to tackle the problem of their decline. Having proved our concept in the lab we are delighted that this funding will allow us to develop our research to have real-world impact.’

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University launches recruitment campaign to boost intellectual capital

Up to 100 new academic positions are on offer at the University of Aberdeen, as a key investment in its ambition to be ranked among the world’s intellectual powerhouses.

Outstanding individuals who have already achieved international distinction in their fields – or have clear potential to do so – are encouraged to ‘Come Here, Shape the Future’, as the University launches a campaign to bring the world’s finest minds to northeast Scotland.

Having re-structured internally, agreed a Strategic Plan for the next few years with clear priorities, and received a positive funding settlement from the Scottish Government, the University is now in a position to target investment in strategically important areas where it has internationally acknowledged strength.

Professor Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said: ‘I am delighted that we are in a position to invest in attracting even more of the best scholars to the University of Aberdeen.

‘This is another positive step forward in our ambition to raise us in the ranks of the world’s top universities.’

The new posts are targeted across the University with a number in the strategic research themes already identified by the University as areas for growth. They are Energy, Environmental Sustainability and Food Security and Pathways to a Healthy Life.

In energy, posts are being created in energy law, finance and economics, in geophysics and in engineering.

New roles in health sciences will include a chair in human nutrition, based at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health and focusing in diabetes and obesity, new posts in public health research, and a new senior role in pushing forward the University’s leadership in the science of imaging and its vital contribution to understanding some of the most distressing and devastating conditions of the human body.

On the environment theme the University’s leadership in research on soil science, crop production, ecology and the soil science will be invested in further, attracting both major research grants and research students from across the world.

Other strategic areas to be boosted include the digital economy – building on the £11.4m dot.rural research hub – language and literature, and music.

Two growing themes for the University which will receive new investment are mathematical biology – which brings together maths with biological sciences, computing and engineering – and peace and reconciliation studies, in which pioneering work led by the University on conflicts around the world will benefit from three new posts to exploit the potential to develop this research on achieving compromise after conflict.

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New scholarship scheme announced

The University of Aberdeen has announced a new scholarship scheme that will provide opportunities for students from Africa and South Asia.

The Tullow Group Scholarship Scheme will cover the cost of full tuition fees plus additional expenses including travel for one year, for a minimum of three postgraduate scholars at the University of Aberdeen. (Overall, the Tullow Group Scholarship Scheme will offer scholarships to a total of 110 students who can select to study at a choice of 48 universities across the UK.)

Students from Ghana, Uganda, Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Mauritania and French Guiana are eligible for the scheme, which has been developed by Tullow Oil and is managed by the British Council.

The scholarships aim to help plug the skills gap in sector areas which are of economic importance in these countries, including, but not exclusively, their oil and gas industries.

The scholarships are open to students from the eligible countries undertaking postgraduate degrees in:

  • geosciences
  • engineering
  • agriculture and agro-based courses
  • environmental and forestry management
  • hospitality and tourism management
  • marine sciences
  • logistics and supply chain
  • law
  • business.

Welcoming the announcement, Professor Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said: ‘The introduction of the Tullow Group Scholarship Scheme to our strong portfolio of scholarships is a prime example of the University of Aberdeen’s commitment to developing opportunities for students from across the globe.

‘Recipients of the scholarships will have the chance to develop skills and expertise which will position them well for future employment opportunities in key industry sectors in their home country, whilst also benefitting from the unique student experience that Aberdeen offers.’

The introduction of the scholarship scheme follows a pilot project that provided support for three Ghanaian students at the University last year.

Lesline Nyankson, a postgraduate student studying Oil and Gas Law is one of the students who benefitted from the scheme. She said: ‘Having recently discovered oil in Ghana it became necessary to train the state’s attorneys in the field. The Ministry of Justice where I have been working for the past seven years did not have the kind of financial support needed for such training, therefore when Tullow Oil offered to help I was nominated to acquire some legal knowledge and skills for the industry.

‘Now, apart from being equipped to support the Ministry of Justice, my successful completion of this course will provide me with a Master’s degree for life, and I am very grateful to Tullow Oil for that.’

The deadline for application for the Tullow Group Scholarship Scheme is 6 April, 2012.

For more information about the scholarship contact Dr Ainsley McIntosh, International Officer, on +44 (0)1224 273199 or a.mcintosh@abdn.ac.uk.

For more information about Tullow Oil visit www.tullowoil.com.

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How ECT helps severely depressed

Aberdeen researchers have discovered how a controversial but effective treatment in psychiatry acts on the brain in people who are severely depressed.

Electroconvulsive therapy or ECT – which involves anaesthetising a patient and electrically inducing a seizure – is the most potent treatment option for patients with serious mood disorder.

Despite being used successfully in clinical practice around the world for more than 70 years, the underlying mechanisms of ECT have so far remained unclear.

Now a multidisciplinary team of clinicians and scientists at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, has shown for the first time that ECT affects the way different parts of the brain involved in depression ‘communicate’ with each other.

In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences they show that the treatment appears to ‘turn down’ an overactive connection between areas of the brain that control mood and the parts responsible for thinking and concentrating.

This stops the overwhelming impact that depression has on sufferers’ ability to enjoy life and carry out day to day activities.

This decrease in connectivity observed after ECT treatment was accompanied by a significant improvement in the patient’s depressive symptoms.

Professor Ian Reid, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Aberdeen and Consultant Psychiatrist at the city’s Royal Cornhill Hospital, led the study which involved using functional MRI to scan the brains of nine severely depressed patients before and after ECT and then applying entirely new and complex mathematical analysis to investigate brain connectivity.

The research involved University colleagues Dr Jennifer Perrin, research fellow in mental health, and Professor Christian Schwarzbauer, Chair in Neuroimaging, who devised the new mathematical method for analysing the connectivity data which enabled the findings to be made.

Professor Schwarzbauer said: ‘With this new method we were able to find out to what extent more than 25,000 different brain areas “communicated” with each other and how the brain’s internal communication patterns differed before and after ECT treatment in severely depressed patients.’

Professor Reid said: ‘ECT is a controversial treatment, and one prominent criticism has been that it is not understood how it works and what it does to the brain.

‘However we believe we’ve solved a 70 year old therapeutic riddle because our study reveals that ECT affects the way different parts of the brain involved in depression connect with one another.

‘For all the debate surrounding ECT, it is one of the most effective treatments not just in psychiatry but in the whole of medicine, because 75% to 85% of patients recover from the symptoms.

‘Over the last couple of years there has been an emerging new perspective on how depression affects the brain.

‘This theory has suggested a “hyperconnection” between the areas of the brain involved in emotional processing and mood change and the parts of the brain involved in thinking and concentrating.

‘Our key finding is that if you compare the connections in the brain before and after ECT, ECT reduces the connection strength between these same areas – it reduces this hyperconnectivity.

‘For the first time we can point to something that ECT does in the brain that makes sense in the context of what we think is wrong in people who are depressed.

‘As far as we know no-one has extended that “connectivity” idea about depression into an arena where you can show a treatment clearly treating depression, changing brain connectivity.

‘And the change that we see in the brain connections after ECT reflects the change that we see in the symptom profile of patients who generally see a big improvement.’

Researchers now hope to continue monitoring the patients to see if the depression and hyperconnectivity returns. They also want to compare their ECT findings with the effects of other therapies used to treat depression such as psychotherapy and anti-depressants.

Professor Reid added: ‘Although ECT is extremely effective, it is only used on people who need treatment quickly: either people who are very severely depressed, who are at risk from taking their own life and who perhaps can’t look after themselves – or patients who have not responded to other treatments.

‘The treatment can also affect memory, though for most patients this is short-lived. We monitor the memory function of all our patients receiving ECT in Grampian, and we find that function returns to normal within a few months.

‘Given the impact of depression itself on memory, it is perhaps unsurprising that such a rapidly acting treatment has this effect: certainly, the patterns of brain changes we have observed are consistent with this.

‘However if we understand more about how ECT works, we will be in a better position to replace it with something less invasive and more acceptable. At the moment only about 40% of people with depression get better with treatment from their GP.

‘Our findings may lead to new drug targets which match the effectiveness of ECT without an impact on memory.’

Professor Schwarzbauer added: ‘The new method we devised for analysing the brain’s functional connectivity in depression could be applied to a wide range of other brain disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, or dementia, and may lead to a better understanding of the underlying disease mechanisms and the development of new diagnostic tools.’

The study was funded by the Chief Scientist Office.

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Major diseases are the target of new venture

The University of Aberdeen is working with Scottish entrepreneur Dr Derek Douglas CBE to spin out a company to work on the development of new drugs for the treatment of breast cancer, heart failure, diabetes and chronic pain.

Signal Pharma will be the first company to spin out of the University’s Kosterlitz Centre for Therapeutics, which is focused on translating biological innovation at the University into new ways of treating, diagnosing and understanding diseases.

Professor Ruth Ross, a world leading expert in pharmacology, and Dr Iain Greig, a medicinal chemist who helped found another University spinout which is developing new drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis, are the founders of Signal Pharma.

They have joined forces with fellow University colleagues Professor Michael Frenneaux, one of Britain’s most respected cardiologists, and Professor Matteo Zanda, an internationally recognised molecular imaging expert, while financial and business acumen is being provided by Dr Derek Douglas and drug development expertise by Dr Michael Wyllie, founder and director Global Pharma Consulting.

Dr Douglas is Chairman and Chief Executive of Adam Smith Limited, which has raised over £100m for early stage companies, including universiy spin outs.

Sigma Pharma will develop a portfolio of four drug discovery projects based on new pathways and targets identified by the University of Aberdeen scientists that appear to be crucial in the development of major diseases.

Signal Pharma is seeking to raise £1.5m to develop this portfolio of drug discovery programmes, over a period of three years, to the stage at which substantial licensing deals with the pharmaceutical industry could be realised.

Prof Ross, who is also director of the University’s Kosterlitz Centre, said: ‘The creation of Signal Pharma is a great opportunity to generate both medical and economic benefits based on the world class biomedical research of discoveries of the University of Aberdeen. The company will focus on developing new treatments for breast cancer, heart failure, pain and diabetes.’

Dr Greig said: ‘This is a very exciting opportunity for pharmacologists and medicinal chemists to work together to develop new breakthrough therapies for major diseases that affect huge numbers of people here in Scotland and the UK. It is particularly satisfying to see ideas that we have worked on for many years reaching the next stage of the development process, which we hope will eventually lead to new drugs that give real benefits to the patients, saving lives and reducing suffering.’

Dr Douglas added: ‘Having been involved in start-ups for over 20 years I see this as a great opportunity with an excellent team to help start a new and growing industry for Aberdeen.’

Signal Pharma has already received support for Scottish Enterprise High Growth Unit and it is seeking investment in Signal Pharma from private investors and venture capitalists.

The company will employ a number of young scientists in Aberdeen and plans to grow by taking forward a pipeline of new projects in the future.

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