UNSW neuroscientist receives an inaugural $1.35m Rebecca Cooper Fellowship

26 Apr 2022
UNSW neuroscientist receives an inaugural $1.35m Rebecca Cooper Fellowship

Sylvia Gustin’s research will facilitate spinal cord injury cure and improve therapies for chronic pain.

Neuroscientist and psychologist Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin, at UNSW Science and Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), has been awarded an inaugural $1.35 million Rebecca Cooper Fellowship from the Rebecca L. Cooper Medical Research Foundation.

A/Prof. Gustin’s Avatar research program, funded through the fellowship, will inform the development of new therapies to improve the lives of people with spinal cord injuries (SCIs) and related disorders such as chronic pain.

“This award will enable me to continue to establish my international coordination of research that integrates basic SCI research with clinical implementation,” she says.

“My aim is to develop cutting-edge treatments for regaining feeling after paralysis and ameliorating pain after SCI. I hope my research will set the stage for far-reaching systemic changes in how the international community approaches SCI recovery and treatment of SCI-related disorders, and that it will lead to a radical change in what can be expected from a life with SCI.”

Around 350 Australians are affected by an SCI each year – and many are young. The effects are major: SCIs can impair critical functions such as movement, sensation, blood pressure control, as well as bowel, bladder and sexual function.

While complete SCI is associated with total loss of sensory and motor function below the level of injury, A/Prof. Gustin’s research has found that not all those suffering from a complete SCI lose sensation in spinal nerve fibres. And while loss of mobility is often considered the most serious consequence, she says people with SCI consistently rate pain as one of the most difficult problems to deal with.

Over the last 10 years, A/Prof. Gustin has undertaken fundamental research to unravel the critical neurochemical, structural and functional brain changes that underlie SCI rehabilitation and pain. The Avatar program aims to translate this research into treatment, developing and evaluating interventions that can provide touch restoration and pain amelioration via the primary source of touch and pain – the human brain.

Acting Dean of UNSW Science Professor Scott Kable congratulated A/Prof. Gustin on the fellowship, saying there is an urgent need to develop new therapies to improve the lives of people with SCI.

“A/Prof. Gustin’s research into new and accessible technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) and brain-computer interface technologies, has the potential to dramatically impact quality of life for those suffering from SCI and SCI pain. I applaud her for receiving this significant fellowship and look forward to witnessing her important research through the Avatar program.”

In 2017, A/Prof. Gustin was also a recipient of the early career Al and Val Rosenstrauss Fellowship from the Rebecca L. Cooper Medical Research Foundation.

Collaborators in the Avatar program include the University of Sydney, University of Technology Sydney (UTS), University of South Australia, University of Washington, University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

You can find out more about A/Prof. Gustin’s research and team at the NeuroRecovery Research Hub.