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Assoc Prof Michael

Authority on neuroplasticity and brain health.


Associate Professor Michael Valenzuela is dedicated to improving brain health globally. He believes that keeping the brain active after retirement can significantly decrease chances of developing degenerative neurological diseases. He is at the forefront of current medical research aimed at understanding and preventing the onset of such diseases. Valenzuela is the leader of the Regenerative Neuroscience Group at the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney. He has a background in psychology, clinical medicine and neuroscience research.

Valenzuela believes that brain health is a critical problem for modern society and is committed to communicating healthy brain ideas to the public. His current research is aimed at further understanding the competing forces of neuroplasticity and degeneration in the human brain, and how these can either lead to or help prevent dementia. He examines how we can harness brain plasticity and use it to improve the long-term health of our brains. His research includes studies with stem cells, animal models, brain tissue, human clinical trials and large multinational population-based samples.

Valenzuela’s Ph.D. focused on brain reserve: specifically how complex mental activity affects the development and expression of dementia. He was awarded the prestigious Eureka Prize for Medical Research for his work in 2006. More recently, he received an NHMRC Excellence Award and the top-ranked Clinical Career Development Award in 2010.

Talking Points

Brain Plasticity: What Is It and How Can We Harness It?

Norman Doidge (The Brain that Changes Itself) introduced the world to the concept of brain plasticity, but what does it really mean? In this talk, leading neuroscientist and Associate Professor Michael Valenzuela will explain the nuts and bolts of neuroplasticity, giving examples from his cutting edge research. He will show how exercise triggers molecular changes in the brain within a matter of hours, synaptic networks begin to adapt over days and chunks of the brain physically expand after weeks. But what training is best for the brain? Valenzuela will share his ideas on how to turn science into practice, introducing the concepts of brain hygiene, brain fitness and brain gyms.

Retirement is Neurotoxic and Needs Reinvention

Mental inactivity is the number one modifiable risk factor for dementia worldwide. In western countries, this translates to mental laziness. We can all understand how physical inactivity can lead to weak muscles, poor fitness and susceptibility to injury; the science of neuroplasticity is finding that similar principles apply to the brain. More precisely, when we decide to stop working and what we then decide to do with our brains has a material effect on our risk of developing dementia. In this presentation, Valenzuela will unpack these ideas and argue for the reinvention of retirement, a 20th-century construct that is past its use-by date. But what will the new retirement look like? Join the conversation.

From Skin Cells to Neurons: The Stem Cell Revolution

Yamanaka received the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2012 for his discovery of induced pluripotential stem cells (iPS cells). What he found was that by upregulating just four key genes, any cell could be tricked into behaving like an embryonic cell, that is, the primordial cell that develops into a whole organism. So now your own small skin sample can theoretically produce new kidney tissue, bone marrow, heart muscle or brain cells. What does this mean for the future of medicine? Valenzuela will share insights from his own stem cell research to show this has enormous potential but also many road blocks. Deeper questions about the nature of human identity and the potential to create chimeras - new hybrid species - will be discussed.

Dogs: The Miracle Animal

A talk for dog lovers or perhaps a neuroscientist’s ode to his favourite animal. Dogs are exceptional animals in more than one sense. They contain the animal kingdom’s most plastic DNA, having evolved through the unnatural selection process of human breeding to possess the most extreme physical variability of any species. They are also the single animal to scan the human eye zone naturally - searching eternally for a glimpse of insight into our souls. Yet it is their brain that is the most extraordinary. Valenzuela’s team have found that the dog brain has structural features of both rodents and humans, making them truly the bridging species par excellence. Like their human masters, dogs are getting fatter, becoming diabetic and living longer. Like humans, a large proportion of dogs succumb to canine dementia (a syndrome defined for the first time by Valenzuela) as they get older. Dogs may hold the secret to how dementia develops and provide a new and completely naturalistic way of trialling new treatments. Yet another example of how they are trying to look after us, God bless 'em.
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