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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Probing the causes of one of the cruellest diseases

Published: 25 November 2008
Professor Hugh Perry

Celebrating 25 of research into neurogenerative disease

2008 is a landmark year for Professor Hugh Perry. It marks 25 years of his research into the neuroscience behind neurodegenerative disease of the brain such as Alzheimer’s disease and ten years of this work at the School of Biological Sciences.

The cruel condition that destroys brain cells leading to increasing levels of dementia absorbs the scientist. Hugh researches at Southampton alongside colleagues such as Professor Clive Holmes who works directly with people who have Alzheimer’s disease. ‘We have a great team at Southampton with people skilled in the various biological aspects of inflammation in the brain. It’s a great place to study and work, ’ Hugh says.

Hugh’s interest in neuroscience started in Oxford where he studied for his PhD at the renowned Department of Experimental Psychology in the 1970s. He was interested initially in visual neuroscience, examining the development of the retina in the eye, then went on to work with macrophage cells of the central nervous system, also called microglia. Hugh discovered they play a major role in the progress of Alzheimer’s disease as evidenced by work in the laboratory on models of the disease.

An extensive programme of research at the School now centres around investigations of inflammation in the brain. Laboratory work is combined with collaborative clinical studies at the city’s Moorgreen Hospital to give the team a full picture of disease progression. As well as Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation is also an important factor in stroke, traumatic brain injury, HIV-related dementia and prion conditions such as ‘mad cow disease’.

In Alzheimer’s disease macrophage cells in the brain are observed to change in character if sufferers pick up common infections such as bladder infections or influenza and appear to make the condition worse. ‘If common infections make patients worse, then surely we should be able to protect people from picking up these bugs,’ he explained.

Hugh moved to Southampton ten years ago. ‘We specialise in real “bench to bedside” research starting at microscopic level and taking it right through to work with patients,’ he said. He is enthusiastic about future developments at the School including the state-of-the-art facilities which will be available in the new biosciences building currently under construction at Highfield.

He asserts multi-disciplinary research is the key to understanding complex conditions. ‘If you’re all in the same building and meet frequently, you talk about your work and make the connections. Life sciences involve so many academics, not just people in Biological Sciences. Neuroscientists need to work with experts in the other sciences, including nanotechnology, engineering and computer scientists. The new building could act as a hub for all kinds of research which will in turn impact across the University.’

While research is key, Hugh is also a passionate and committed teacher. He is a popular choice among students seeking a supervisor for dissertations and theses and can offer a wide range of fascinating subjects for study. His former students and postdoctoral researchers now hold senior posts across the academic and commercial sectors.

‘It was a good decision to come to Southampton ten years ago, and one I’ve certainly never regretted,’ he concluded.

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