Professor Michael Nilsson
Faculty of Health and Medicine
- Phone:+61 2 4042 0570
A leading role
The Hunter Medical Research Institute has a strong tradition of cultivating young research talent, which its new Director, Professor Michael Nilsson is keen to continue.
Good role modelling and support is of immeasurable value to a young researcher, a concept not lost on Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) Director Michael Nilsson. As a student, the esteemed Swedish neuroscientist, neurologist and rehabilitation medicine specialist came under the wing of Professor Christian Blomstrand, an innovative colleague in neurological research who was to become highly influential in Nilsson's career.
The pair still collaborate and share an interest in stroke and brain plasticity with a translational view, from the basic functions of astrocytes in the brain to pioneering studies in modern stroke rehabilitation.
"He was, and still is, a facilitator, a mentor and a fabulous person – his advice and guidance really helped shape my career," Nilsson reflects. "When I first started working in this area, astrocytes were thought to be very passive cells but he and other distinguished colleagues at the University of Gothenburg suspected that they were more involved in the inner processes of the brain and could see the potential for expansive and very interesting research.
"We pioneered parts of the early research in this field and contributed to the growing body of evidence demonstrating that astrocytes are essential for core brain functions. For example, they contribute to the control of the flow of information over the synapses and are integral in brain plasticity and regeneration."
Nilsson, who took up his HMRI role in March, is acutely aware of the important role the institute has played over its 14-year history in fostering emerging young medical researchers. He is impressed with the calibre of early and mid career researchers within the organisation, who in some cases are already leaders in their fields. Having a young family himself – he is a father of four children aged between three and 16 – he also is attuned to the many demands and responsibilities placed on young researchers.
"Life is not all about work and it is important that we acknowledge that, because we need different types of stimuli and also periods of rest and recovery. This will ultimately lead to a more productive researcher, and a better person overall. I am a firm believer of that," Nilsson maintains.
"HMRI has an important role to play in supporting young researchers in all aspects of their lives, not just for the benefit of their careers but for the benefit of the institute. We need to provide an environment in which they are happy to develop their careers so that in future we will have young people who can step up to take on leading roles in our research programs."
Previously Director of Research, Development and Education at northern Europe's largest teaching hospital, Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, Nilsson brings to HMRI a wealth of research management experience and high standing in the international research community.He has forged strong relationships with researchers in Australia, including collaborations with HMRI's world-leading Stroke Research Group, since first venturing to the country in 1997 to undertake a visiting fellowship at Flinders University's Centre for Neuroscience.
"I came to Newcastle for the first time four or five years ago and I was impressed with the research community, the opportunities and the pioneering spirit that was evident," Nilsson recalls."The emphasis on translational research here also attracted me to the HMRI position.
"As a city with one university that has strong links to its teaching hospitals, Newcastle is ideally positioned to take a leading role internationally in patient-focused research. With the opening of our new building and its state-of-the-art facilities, I envisage HMRI becoming a very desirable destination for world-class researchers."
Nilsson is maintaining a research role while steering HMRI. He is building a local team to work on brain recovery processes after stroke, of which his innovative Culture and Brain Health program will constitute a part. The project, based in Sweden, studies the effects of cultural and physical influences such as music, arts, architecture, nutrition and exercise, on brain recovery after stroke or trauma.
A 2009 study by Nilsson's team, using the records of more than one million young men from the Swedish conscription register, found a strong correlation between good cardiovascular fitness and higher intelligence. A subsequent study also showed an association between fitness in young adulthood and a reduced risk of depression later in life.
He and his colleagues are now working with the concept of enriched environments and how providing multimodal stimulation – a combination of physical exercises, social activity and cognitive challenges – can stimulate brain plasticity and functional recovery after stroke.
"We are studying the effects of physical and cultural stimulation in both healthy people and survivors of stroke and we strongly believe these factors can help sustain and develop the cognitive reserve of the brain," he outlines. "The research has potential implications for brain recovery in a range of situations, and for healthy ageing in general. I want to grow this program and have researchers from Sweden and other collaborating laboratories coming to HMRI and vice-versa.
"We will support parallel high-level international collaboration across all of the research programs of HMRI. Such collaborations are absolutely necessary for the development of our emerging research leaders."
Whilst increasing HMRI's global collaborations and profile are constant themes in Nilsson's strategy for the institute, he is similarly intent on building strong relationships at home. He speaks with equal enthusiasm about convening prestigious international symposia and instigating regular community seminars.
"HMRI is built on three pillars – the Hunter New England Local Health District, the University of Newcastle and the community – and the support of each is critical to its success," he states. "It is important that we keep people in the Hunter up to date with what we are doing, but also that we take our work to the world and let the international research community know what a wonderful, innovative environment we have here."
Visit the HMRI website
April 14, 2015
Congratulations to Professor Paulette Van Vliet from the School of Health Sciences on her successful application for an NHMRC Development Grant for the continued development of the Arm Movement Measurement (ArMM) device.
February 4, 2015
The Hunter Region NSW will become the international testing ground for a new microwave-imaging headpiece that helps ambulance and emergency teams rapidly diagnose stroke and other traumatic brain injuries.
June 3, 2014
The Hunter Cancer Research Alliance (HCRA) has become the first regionally based organisation to receive full Translational Cancer Research Centre status and an accompanying $6.5-million funding injection from the Cancer Institute NSW.
March 12, 2014
A new international study has shown for the first time that teenagers with poor cardiovascular fitness and a lower IQ have a significantly increased risk of developing early-onset dementia and its precursors.