The spice is right: how curry and the cloud may improve Alzheimer’s testing

By Carrie Bengston, James Davidson and Olivier Salvado

Mmm . . . lovely! A hot Indian curry is simmering away on the stove on a wintry night. The smell of spices fills the kitchen. One of the spices is turmeric, from the ginger family. Its vibrant yellow colour comes from the compound curcumin which is finding a use in clinical tests for Alzheimers disease (AD).

Who knew? Soon everyone will! We’re presenting our research this week at a major conference in Copenhagen, AAIC2014.

Indian curry in a dish

Curry night! The golden yellow spice turmeric contains curcumin – a key ingredient of a new eye test for Alzheimer’s

A clinical trial of the spice-infused eye test is being led by our own Dr Shaun Frost and team, with WA’s Edith Cowan University, US company NeuroVision Imaging, and the McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Foundation in Perth. Several hundred volunteers have taken part. They include healthy people, mildly cognitively impaired people and patients with AD. It’s all part of the Australian Imaging Biomarkers and Lifestyle study of Aging (AIBL)

The trial asks volunteers to come along to two visits for retinal fluorescence imaging, ie an eye scan. This is quick and painless. Patients sit in front of a specialised camera and a photo is taken of the retina at the back of their eye.

Patient having eye scanned by researcher

Dr Shaun Frost takes a photo of the back of a patient’s eyes, not for Instagram but for a clinical trial

Between visits, volunteers eat some curcumin which binds to beta-amyloid plaques, the sticky proteins that indicate Alzheimers, and fluoresces. The plaques (if there are any) show up in the eye scans as bright spots which can be counted and measured. The data is then used to calculate a special number for each patient, a retinal amyloid index (RAI), and compared between healthy, mildly cognitively impaired and AD patients.

Bright spots showing Alzheimer's plaques in retinal scan

Amyloid plaques, a sign of Alzheimer’s, show up in retinal scan as fluorescent spots as curcumin binds to them

Encouragingly, as we announced this week, early results show the amount of plaque in the retina closely mirrors the amount in the brain. If confirmed, retinal imaging may be the beginnings of an easy, non-invasive test for early detection of AD. Combined with results of cognitive tests and other markers it could help doctors diagnose AD more confidently.

Eye scans like this also find plaques when they’re smaller than the ones in brain scans, potentially finding signs of AD earlier – maybe up to 20 years before cognitive symptoms appear. If diagnosed, AD patients could start treatment sooner and have regular eye scans to see which treatments work best for them.

Brain imaging on the cloud

From curry to the cloud. More research presented this week is about more accurately interpreting brain images sometimes used to diagnose AD.

To get a brain scan, a patient lies on a bed in a large machine like a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or Positron Emission tomography (PET) scanner. These machines record a series of images through the brain, which are then visually checked by a radiologist who compiles a report for the patient’s doctor.

This visual inspection can be subjective, tedious and time consuming. But recent advances in scientific computing and machine learning allows systems to accurately measure features of the 3D scan, such as brain size or concentration of a tracer molecule, that support a diagnosis.

Using these techniques, a new trend is emerging for improving radiologists’ productivity. Scanners and specialised medical software can report quantitative values and compare them to the values expected for normal, healthy patients – just like blood test results from a pathology lab do.

Our researchers, led by health imaging specialist Associate Prof Olivier Salvado, have just released a new cloud computing application, MILXCloud, that automatically delivers standardised radiology reports.

brain surface showing the concentration of a radioactive dye imaged by PET scan

Our new software, MILXCloud, automates brain scan analysis and reporting on the Cloud

Users will be able to upload a PET scan and within 15 minutes be emailed a one page quantitative report showing a diagram of the brain with colour coded values compared with what’s normal. This data will help support diagnosis by the radiologist and enhance delivery of eHealth services.

Whether it’s curry or the Cloud, the future of Alzheimer’s detection sure looks bright.

Media: Andreas Kahl  |  0407 751 330  |

Women can help bridge the ‘valley of death’ in science innovation

Cathy Foley reflects on her time as Woman of the Year.

Cathy Foley reflects on her time as Woman of the Year.

By Cathy Foley, President of Science and Technology Australia

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8 and my time as NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year draws to a close, I have been thinking about diversity in the workplace, and in particular, the relationship between diversity and innovation.

Science and technology that lead to innovation are critical for the changes that lead to a better quality of life, greater business opportunities and a happier, healthier and more equitable society.

We don’t have to look far from our own backyard to see examples of this. The rapid global expansion of wireless communications is in part possible because of the now widely acknowledged work by John O’Sullivan and his team at the CSIRO. Wi-Fi is now estimated to be used in more than 3 billion devices worldwide.

Given the huge benefits that innovation can bring – economically and socially – we should be doing everything we can to encourage environments where this type of thinking and practice can thrive. One of the most effective ways to do this would be achieve gender balance in our innovation system.

The gender balance

There is strong evidence that companies operating with a gender-balance actually enhance their innovation quotient and gain a competitive advantage.

Reports also suggest that advances in gender equality correlate positively with higher Gross National Product (GNP) and that increasing women’s labour force participation and earnings generates greater economic benefits for a family’s health and education. Surely this can only be a good thing.

So where exactly are we at? As a nation we have achieved great things. Last year Australia was named the country with the highest quality of life in the world, according to the OECD better life index.

The gender gap

But we still have considerable work to do in many ways, including closing the gender gap in the workplace. The World Economic Forum has reported that in 2013 Australia continues to sit at 24th in closing this gap – just above Ecuador and Mozambique.

Australia still has only 17.6% representation of women on ASX 200 boards (as of 14 February 2014), and almost a quarter of boards of the ASX 200 still do not have any females at all.

Women working in science remain hugely underrepresented in leadership roles and some areas of physics and engineering have as little as 5% female participation.

The Australian Businesswomen’s Network says that women are starting small businesses at twice the rate of men. Despite this, a US study has found that female-owned companies are less likely to attract private investment compared to male-owned companies.

The recipe for success

If the nexus of women, science and business is the recipe for success in innovation, then how do women, science and business meet?

Equity, diversity and the lost opportunity of not capturing the full human potential are important arguments for having more women involved in science, technology and business.

But I have a new reason. As the traditional “social organisers” women bring a lot to the table. Business and science success is all about relationships and networking. You have to meet to do business.

Take the science world as an example. On average it takes about 20 years for a discovery to develop into a product. This has been an international rule of thumb. Everyone wants this to happen faster.

When you look at the reason for the delay, it is often when the development gets caught up in what is often called the “valley of death” or a black hole in the commercialisation process which can add years to transitioning time. Translating a discovery in the science lab to the engineering and development, then finally securing industry adoption can be a tortuous process.

What women can do

Women can offer a great deal in making that link as years of social conditioning means that it comes naturally to us.

Could the gender gap be a factor holding back the transition of science to industry, leading to missed opportunities? The diversity that women bring as scientists, technologists, engineers and nascent entrepreneurs might be the answer.

If women’s participation is a demonstrated element for business success and innovation is the essential ingredient for businesses to flourish, then why have we not embraced the opportunity to boost the role of women in science and business? Perhaps if we did we would witness greater translation of research to industry and our economic success would grow even more.

So at the end of a year thinking about what needs to change if we are to grow our economic and social prosperity, I think that increasing the participation of women in science, technology and business (big and small) is critical if Australia is to continue to have world leading quality of life, close the gender gap and have internationally competitive businesses.

Economic and social prosperity depends on change. This is one change we need to make now.

Cathy Foley is one of the keynote speakers at the Open Space free event today at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, Melbourne, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm 20/2/14.

Cathy Foley is affiliated with CSIRO. She is Chief of the Division of Materials Science and Engineering where she has worked for 29 years.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why we ♥ science

As many spend big this Valentine’s Day on roses, chocolates and novelty balloons – $791.4 million is expected to be spent nationally – we think that love is all you need. Over the past few months, we’ve had a summer romance-of-sorts with some of Australia’s brightest young minds. We’re talking about our vacation scholarship program, where about 200 undergraduate students spend their summer working on research projects across the country, from searching for black holes with our Parkes radio telescope to helping develop CO2 absorbent polymers.

This week, a group of our summer students got together for our annual Big Day In at the University of New South Wales, where they presented about their summer research. The student who took out the top presentation prize, Fletcher Talbot, worked on a gesture recognition system for the Museum Robot, or “M-Bot”, which roams the galleries of the National Museum of Australia. Fletcher created 40 custom hand gestures the M-Bot can detect.

Move, robot.

Fletcher’s gesture recognition system in action.

The students also took the opportunity to declare their love for science. “I love Science because it’s a way of understanding the world,” and “I love Science because it’s really innovative, it’s always changing and it’s really dynamic.” Check out the video below.

Video transcript available here.

Why do you love science? Let us know in the comments.

And happy Valentine’s Day.

Here’s more information on our scholarship programs and careers with us.

Our gang of teen geniuses

It’s 1984. Shoulder pads, Walkmans and  Macs were all the rage… and so were the Sci-Five. Well, at least in ‘science circles’ they were, as they battled it out for the BHP Science Prize.

They were our answer to a superhero gang, in that adorable-geeky kind of way. There was Geraldine who discovered a new species of goanna, and casually kept a two-metre pregnant python in her room. Then there was Tim who spent his life intimately studying wild duck behaviour, and Lindy who experimented with the effects of common drugs on mice. Darren was a budding physicist who came up with his own explanation for the “red-shift” of distant galaxies, and Robert designed a computer-based system for tracking boomerangs.

Here they are in action.

Back then the BHP Billiton Science and Engineering Awards were Australia’s most prestigious school science awards – and not much has changed today. The Awards recognise the innovation and creativity of our youngest and brightest sparks.

Now in their 33rd year, the entries are just as inspiring as those of the Sci-Five. Here are just a few.

Jake's Swirlesque glove in action

Jake’s Swirlesque glove in action.

The force is strong with Swirlesque

Imagine if you could turn on a light or play a DVD with the wave of your hand. Jake Coppinger’s Swirlesque glove lets you do just that.

It detects hand gestures, allowing us to control a range of devices like smartphones, computers, televisions and lightbulbs with the simple flick of a wrist.

To use Swirlesque you simply put the glove on, launch the app on a smartphone and press a button to connect via Bluetooth to the phone. The buttons in the Android app control the operation mode, which selects what gestures are assigned to.

Check it out in action.

Ben built his first mini bike out of spare BMX parts.

Ben built his first mini bike out of spare BMX parts.

On yer bamboo bike

Over 100 million bicycles are manufactured worldwide each year – that’s about twice the number of motor vehicles. They only use 2 per cent as much energy as cars per passenger-kilometer, but they are typically made from expensive, heavy metals like steel.

Ben Beagley wants to change this. Using the spare bamboo in his garage, he designed and constructed an organic, lightweight bamboo bike.

This is a much cheaper alternative to the traditional bike that uses the strength and flexibility of bamboo to replace heavy, industrial metal components.

Saving our troubled waters

Liam's project could be they key to reducing waste in our waterways.

Liam’s project could be they key to reducing waste in our waterways.

When you live in the world’s driest inhabitable continent, it’s important that clean rainwater goes into our drainage systems without picking up pollutants like litter, chemicals and sediments.

Liam Grieve has looked at whether wetland plants could be effective at removing these nutrients from waterways, leading to a cleaner, healthier environment.

He set up experiments running nutrient-enriched water through three simulated wetland environments, and discovered the plants could effectively filter nutrients from the water.

To infinity and beyond

The space race might be well and truly over, but that’s not stopping Jack Allison. Combining his love of electronics and physics, he has investigated a new way to revolutionise space exploration.

The sky is the limit for Jack, winner of his school Pedal Prix series in 2013.

The sky’s the limit for bright spark Jack Allison.

Jack has designed and created an enhancement to help improve the performance of rail guns – also known as electrically powered projectile launchers – to demonstrate their potential for launching spacecraft into orbit.

He built a test rig and light-gate to measure the effect of this enhancement at different voltages, and looked at how the projectile responded magnetically when fired.

You can hear their full stories and more in the video below.


The winners will be announced at Melbourne’s ZINC on Tuesday 4 February from 11am AEDT. Head to BHP Billiton Science and Engineering Awards for more information.

Media: Huw Morgan. P: +61 8 8303 8857 M: +61 417 834 547 E:

Be good to your brain

Today marks the start of Dementia Awareness Week 2013, a national campaign to raise the profile of the many different forms of dementia, from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s disease.

More than 300,000 Aussies are estimated to be living with dementia – a figure which is set to almost triple by 2050. So how can we help lower our risk in the future?

Experts from Alzheimer’s Australia say we need to understand the connection between our physical health and our brain health. As we get older, it’s important that we take care of both our bodies and our brains.

It's true what they say - a healthy body is a healthy mind. Image: Shutterstock.

It’s true what they say – a healthy body is a healthy mind. Image: Shutterstock.

Serious chronic illnesses like heart disease, stroke and diabetes, plus risk factors including depression, obesity and sleep are all associated with cognitive decline. If left unchecked, these conditions can increase our risk of developing a range of debilitating diseases including dementia.

So while there may not be a cure, we can help reduce our risk of dementia by maximising our brain health and managing our blood sugar, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and body weight.

Learn more about our work in the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia.


Dementia Awareness Week runs from 16 to 22 September. Head to Alzheimer’s Australia for more information.

Media: Andreas Kahl, T: 08 8303 8888 M: 0407 751 330

A Deadly night to remember

It’s not often we get to dress up and hit the red carpet, so when it happens we like to brag about it.

Last night we took to the Sydney Opera House to celebrate the 19th annual Deadlys. These prestigious awards recognise the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across a range of fields in our community.

Our Chief Executive tries her hand at photobombing.

Our Chief Executive tries her hand at photobombing.

While it was a nice excuse to rub shoulders with superstar Jessica Mauboy and photobomb RedFoo from LMFAO, that’s not why we were there.

This year a new award was added to the Deadlys – the inaugural Deadly Award for Indigenous Scientist or Science Project of the Year – and we were chuffed to be sponsoring it. The award recognises the significant contributions made by Indigenous people working in science roles or science projects.

Nominations were received from members of the public and five finalists were selected by a panel of deadly experts.

And the winner is: Gerry Turpin.

Gerry is an ethnobotanist at the Australian Tropical Herbarium in Cairns. He is working with our researchers and a range of other organisations to develop an Indigenous driven tropical ethnobotanical centre, known as TIEC.

The TIEC is the first of its kind in Australia and will help Traditional Owners in tropical Queensland apply their Indigenous environmental knowledge for cultural use on-country.

A big congratulations to Gerry and all of this year’s winners.

Maths at the zoo

By Carrie Bengston

You might not realise, but we use maths in nearly all of our daily activities. Every time we check the weather, use the internet or travel anywhere, maths plays a part. On a larger scale, maths can even be used to protect our flora and fauna from invasive pests. Our Biosecurity Flagship Director Dr Gary Fitt explains.

Zoos are a great place to visit but we don’t want Australia to become one. Image: Shutterstock.

Zoos are a great place to visit but we don’t want Australia to become one. Image: Shutterstock.

Q: You’ve said we don’t want Australia to become a zoo. What do you mean?

A:  Zoos have collections of animals from all around the world. While they’re fun to visit, we don’t want Australia to become one. Australia already has its own magnificent native flora and fauna. We’re an island continent and our wildlife really is unique in the world.

Take the Gouldian Finch for example. I’ve just spent a week in the Kimberley region of WA observing and counting these spectacularly colourful little birds. These endangered species are found nowhere else in the world but northern Australia. It would be tragic if they were lost from nature because of the introduction of a pest or disease.

With the world so connected by air and sea, the risks are real that Australia could become a zoo of introduced species alongside a reduced set of native ones.

It’s not just animals either – our plants are unique too. Botany Bay, where Captain James Cook landed, is named after the science of plants because so many unusual plant specimens were collected there by Joseph Banks. Unfortunately, our bushland today can become a new home for invasive plants, like the garden escapees lantana and privet.

Australia is home to some of the world's most unique and precious wildlife, just like the Gouldian Finch. Image: Cheryl Mares.

Australia is home to some of the world’s most unique and precious wildlife, just like the Gouldian Finch. Image: Cheryl Mares.

We don’t want invasive animals, plants or even micro-organisms from other parts of the world coming in and getting a foothold. Australia’s ecosystems would change forever, affecting health and agriculture. We need to protect our own biodiversity as much as we can. Our biosecurity research is key to that. It’s in our interests and future generations’ interests to get that right.

Q: You’ve enlisted mathematicians and statisticians to work on this research. What do they bring to the field of biosecurity?

Biosecurity is in a sense a game of probabilities. In this game the mathematical sciences are critical in two ways.

The first is to do with risk. Maths can help us determine the chances of a particular pest arriving and surviving in Australian environments, often in the face of uncertainties. By better understanding the risks and pathways, we can optimise investments in the right kind of surveillance systems. For instance, some of our projects quantify the riskiest pathways of entry in Australia, while others look at where to focus surveillance in ports.

The second is to do with response. Once a pest has arrived here, how do we get rid of it or limit its spread? We need to choose strategies that have the greatest chance of success. Once implemented, we need to know whether those methods are working.

Image: Cheryl Mares.

Maths and stats play a vital role in protecting Australia from invasive pests. Image: Cheryl Mares.

By making decisions based on statistical inference from the available data, rather than gut feel or vested interests, we can help policy makers and operational Biosecurity players better target funds for response. Maths is also important for modelling the life cycle stages of invasive species which might be most vulnerable to biological control.

Q: It’s Canberra’s centenary year. How has research in Canberra contributed to our understanding of bioinvasion and biosecurity?

A: Canberra is and has been home to some of Australia’s most famous research into invasive pests.

Canberra was where the ANU’s Frank Fenner worked on myxamatosis with CSIRO’s Ian Clunies-Ross and Macfarlane-Burnett. Mid-last century, they famously injected themselves with the myxoma virus, brought in to control the country’s rabbit plague, to prove it wouldn’t infect humans. 

For years, our work has played a vital role in controlling 'those pesky wabbits'.

For years, we’ve been helping to control ‘those pesky wabbits’.

The introduction of myxamotosis was a big step forward in controlling a pest that had devastated huge areas of farmland and was costing millions in lost production. We’re continuing our work here to improve the effectiveness of the next generation rabbit biocontrol agent, calicivirus.


September 12 – 13 is the Biosecurity and Bioinvasion workshop in Canberra. Our experts are discussing how maths is essential in protecting Australia from the threat of pests and diseases as part of the International Year of the Maths of Planet Earth.


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