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Epileptic Seizures Decoded -
HKUST Unravels Mechanism behind
Brain Development
HKUST unravels mechanism behind brain development. The research team (from left): Dr Lei Shi, Prof Nancy Ip, Dr Amy Fu and Mr Jacque Ip

Prof Nancy Ip, Dean of Science, Chair Professor of the Division of Life Science and Director of the State Key Laboratory of Molecular Neuroscience at HKUST has made with her research team a breakthrough discovery in signaling mechanisms in brain development that have far-reaching implications in biomedicine.

The photos show the normal neuronal migration (left) and aberrant neuronal migration after suppression of α2-chimaerin (right) with neurons in green

The team has recently identified a protein that is responsible for brain cell migration. "Without this protein, the newborn brain cells cannot migrate to or reach their destination, thereby failing to connect with their target cells to form the proper circuit within the brain. Brain cell migration is important for brain development and failure of the process leads to neurological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and epilepsy," said Prof Ip.

The team has successfully identified a protein α2-chimaerin as a key regulator of neuronal migration and brain function. Using a cutting-edge technique known as in utero electroporation, the researchers demonstrate that suppressing the expression of α2-chimaerin in the embryonic cerebral cortex arrests neuronal migration, resulting in the accumulation of migrating neurons at an incorrect area of the brain. Furthermore, mice with a genetic deletion of the α2-chimaerin exhibit spontaneous epileptic seizure behavior.

These exciting findings suggest that disrupting neuronal migration results in aberrant wiring of the neural circuit and subsequently epileptic seizures. Since many neuropsychiatric diseases are associated with seizures and problems in neuronal migration in the brain, the findings on α2-chimaerin by Prof Ip and her team now provide a new avenue for understanding both the disease mechanisms and the development of therapies to treat disease-related effects. These groundbreaking discoveries by Prof Ip and her research team have been published in Nature Neuroscience, a prestigious journal in neuroscience.


A conversation with Prof Ip

"Perseverance is key," said Prof Nancy Ip who has recently been decorated as Knight of l'Ordre National du Mérite by the French President. The award ceremony, which took place at the residence of Mr Arnaud Barthélémy, Consul-General of France in Hong Kong and Macau, was attended by over 100 community leaders, officials, academicians, colleagues, and students. She is one of a handful of people who have received the decoration in Hong Kong.

"Science is challenging. It takes a long time to make breakthrough discoveries and there are no shortcuts.  But you have to love what you do. New discoveries and publication of our findings in prestigious journals excite me. I hope I can be a role model to demonstrate that it can be done."

Prof Ip has published over 210 scientific papers. With more than 14,300 SCI citations, she is among the top 100 highly cited researchers in neuroscience.

"An education in science benefits students. It enhances logical thinking and builds pragmatic problem-solving skills." Prof Ip has a few words for those who aspire to pursue careers in science. "Never give up. Always find ways to overcome difficulties."

Prof Ip received her PhD degree in Pharmacology from Harvard University. She has garnered numerous awards including the Honors for Women Innovators at the APEC Women and Economy Summit (2011), the Scientific and Technological Progress Prize of Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation (2008), the L'OREAL-UNESCO 'For Women in Science' Award (2004), making her the first honoree in life sciences from China, and the National Natural Science Award (2003), China's highest honor in the natural sciences. She was elected Academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the highest academic honor bestowed on Chinese scientists, and a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World. She holds 21 patents.

Devoted to investigating brain development and drug discovery for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, Prof Ip's research successfully provides important clues for their therapeutics. She is well known for her discoveries in the biology of neurotrophic factors, which are proteins that promote the survival, development and maintenance of neurons in the brain. Her research led to the identification of neurotrophic factors as potential pharmaceutical agents for the treatment of such diseases. She is also an international leader in elucidating the molecular signaling mechanism at synapses where nerve cells communicate, and associating synaptic dysfunction with the pathophysiology of neurodegenerative diseases.