Scientist looks at mysteries of the brain

Helen Murray, 30, worked with fellow American scientists to discover how Covid-19 impacts the brain.

Botany local and scientist Helen Murray is working on ground-breaking research that proves that Covid can have a long-lasting neurological effect on the brain.

In her first year of a Biomedical Science degree, Helen, 30, discovered her interest in neuroscience.

“I attended a neuroscience lecture,” Helen says. “It took something very complicated, the human brain, and made it very logical and exciting.”

She went along the neuroscience pathway, completing both her honours and a PhD.

Recently she has worked with fellow American scientists to discover how Covid-19 impacts the brain. Her involvement was centred around her expertise with the olfactory bulb: the part of the brain that allows us to smell.

“We expected to see inflammation, but not damaged blood vessels,” she says. “It highlighted that people are having neurological symptoms, and those symptoms can have long-lasting effects.”

Helen’s beginning research focused on examining anatomical changes in neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s. She did this by using post-mortem human brain tissue.

“My Aunt had early onset dementia,” she says. “So, there was definitely a personal link.”

She split her time between Auckland and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States.

“It was a bit of a balancing act,” she says. “It was definitely challenging to split my time in two places. I met really great people in both places, but it was really tiring spending two years living out of a suitcase!”

Helen says that, while America offered amazing opportunities, it did require sacrifices.

“There were quite a few key events I wish I could’ve gone too,” she says.

“I try to separate work time and home time and training time as best as I can.”

Additionally Helen is the Captain of New Zealand’s ice hockey team, Ice Fernz. She played consistently while she was in America and often returned to New Zealand to play in the domestic home season.

“I’ve been playing hockey since my studies,” she says. “I absolutely love it.”

Her current research will be combining her athletic background and science. After returning to New Zealand, Helen will be establishing a research programme studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative condition from repeated head injury in sport.

“It’s an amazing thing for two very important parts of my life to come together,” she says.

“They both involve a lot of the same kinds of discipline, hard-work, perseverance and team-work.”

Helen mentions that this research is her calling and where she sees her long-term goals being set. She wishes to establish a connection between multiple concussions and early on-set dementia.

“A lot of my teammates and friends have had concussions,” she says.

“I’ve had a few myself. People often tend to underestimate the repercussions of them.”

Outside of science and hockey, Helen enjoys travelling with her family and exploring new places.

“I’m quite active, but I’m also a bit of a homebody,” she says. “I enjoy indoors and outdoors.”

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