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Dr Julia Pitcher

Telephone +61 8 8313 1301
Position M.S. McLeod Research Fellow
Email julia.pitcher@adelaide.edu.au
Fax +61 8 8313 0010
Building WCH - Norwich Centre
Floor/Room G 17
Campus Women's & Children's Hospital
Org Unit School of Paediatrics and Reproductive Health

To link to this page, please use the following URL:
http://www.adelaide.edu.au/directory/julia.pitcher

Biography/ Background

Qualifications

  • BAppSc(Ex&SpSc); BSc(Hons); PhD

Current Appointments

  • University Senior Research Fellow

  • Research Program Leader, Neuromotor Plasticity and Development group

  • Senior Lecturer

Research Overview

In 2009, the Developmental Neuromotor Physiology group headed by Dr Julia Pitcher and the Human Sensorimotor Plasticity group headed by Associate Professor Mike Ridding joined the Robinson Institute and formed the Neuromotor Plasticity and Development (NeuroPAD) research group. Mike is internationally-renowned for his pioneering work in human brain plasticity induction, and Julia is attracting increasing recognition for her novel use of neurophysiologic techniques to unravel the links between motor and cognitive development in preterm children. The research interests of the group encompass neuromotor development and neuroplasticity across the human lifespan, from prenatal and early postnatal factors influencing motor development, through to therapeutic uses of induced neuroplasticity in ageing and neuropathological disorders such as stroke and the dystonias. The aim of the group's research is to inform and develop therapeutic interventions to develop, maintain and rehabilitate human motor function. NeuroPAD collaborates widely with clinicians and scientists from a range of disciplines including motor control neuroscientists, neurologists, neonatologists, obstetricians, psychologists, paediatricians, anaesthetists, physiotherapists and clinical epidemiologists. NeuroPAD is housed in four new purpose-built laboratories in the Robinson Institute next to the Women's and Children's Hospital, and is fully equipped with state of the art transcranial magnetic brain stimulators with neuronavigation, high-density EEG and human neurophysiological recording systems.

NeuroPAD group members

Name Position
Dr Julia Pitcher Co-Director, University Senior Research Fellow
Associate Professor Michael Ridding Co-Director, NH&MRC Senior Research Fellow
Dr Nicolette Hodyl NH&MRC Peter Doherty Research Fellow
Dr Michael Stark
Neonatologist
Dr Luke Schneider Post-doctoral Researcher
Dr Richard Harris Post-doctoral Researcher
Dr Mitchell Goldsworthy
Post-doctoral Researcher
Dr Brenton Hordacre Post-doctoral Researcher
Ms Rebecca Collins Doctoral student (p/t)
Ms Tara Crawford
Research Assistant
Ms Natalie Aboustate
Doctoral student
Mr Robert Sadler Honours student

Awards & Achievements

  • 2009 NH&MRC Ten of the Best
    Awarded for one of the ten best research projects funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/publications/synopses/r44-tenofthebest-syn.htm
  • 2005 Young Tall Poppy of Science Award
    Australian Institute of Political Science, for outstanding scholarship of national and international standing by a young Australian scientist.
  • 2004 NH&MRC Peter Doherty Research Fellowship
  • 2003 Elizabeth Penfold Simpson Prize
    Awarded by the Australian Brain Foundation (SA Branch), for the most outstanding body of published clinical or basic neuroscience research in 2001 and 2002.

Current Research Projects

Motor and Cognitive Development in Children born Preterm (PREMOCODE)
For the past 20 years, much of the research concerning the long term neurological outcomes of preterm birth has concentrated on those children born very or extremely preterm (i.e. < 32 weeks gestation), with little interest in preterm children born 33-37 weeks. This is not surprising since the most preterm children are more likely to have profound disabilities. But a small number of recent studies suggested that even mildly and moderately preterm children also experience motor, learning and behavioural problems at school age. Across all gestations of preterm children, this motor and cognitive dysfunction usually co-occurs, suggesting that there is a common underlying origin. To test this hypothesis, the PREMOCODE (PREterm MOtor and COgnitive DEvelopment) study has been investigating the neurological development of a large cohort of children (now aged 12-14 years) who were born at the Women's and Children's Hospital after 24 - 41 weeks of gestation at a range of birthweights.
To date, we have found that abnormal development of the brain's motor control areas is not confined to the very preterm or very growth restricted, and for every week of reduced gestation (i.e. under 40 weeks), there is linear reduction in the excitability of the motor cortex that is clearly evident at the end of the first decade of life. In addition, for every percent an individual's actual birthweight is under their optimal predicted term birthweight (100%), there is a corresponding linear fall in the excitability of the motor cortex that is independent of the effects of gestation. Perhaps more importantly we have found quite strong associations between the underdevelopment of these motor areas and the level of cognitive dysfunction, specifically in those cognitive abilities related to language comprehension and reading. In fact, the development of the motor cortex is a much stronger predictor of cognitive abilities in these children than gestation. This is the first physiological evidence that the motor and cognitive dysfunction commonly experienced by preterm children when they reach school age probably has a common underlying origin(s) in the brain. This study is continuing and will elucidate the relationship between early postnatal health (including time spent in the NICU or SCBU) and socio-economic circumstances and the severity of this motor and cognitive dysfunction in preterm children.

 

Does preterm birth alter the capacity of the brain for neuroplasticity?
One outcome of preterm birth may be that the capacity of the brain to reorganise the strength of its connections may be altered. This may impair the preterm child's ability to compensate for their delay or dysfunction, by limiting the ability of their brain synapses and neurons to alter their strength (neuroplasticity) in response to experiences. Neuroplasticity underlies learning and memory of cognitive, motor and sensory abilities throughout life, but particularly during early childhood. Therefore the main aim of this study is to determine if neuroplasticity is impaired in premature children and contributes to their motor and cognitive deficits. The study utilises transcranial magnetic brain stimulation and surface electromyography techniques to induce motor plasticity and to measure motor and sensory function in 12-13 year old children who are members of the PREMOCODE study cohort. The findings will have implications for the way children born preterm learn, as well as therapeutic programs designed to assist motor and cognitive development in these children.

 

Neurodevelopmental outcomes in children born to overweight and obese women: Does limiting maternal weight gain during pregnancy help?

Over 50% of pregnant women in Australia are overweight or obese (BMI> 25 kg/m2). Since 1998, there has been a threefold increase in women who are severely or morbidly obese during pregnancy. This is associated with serious health issues for the woman and her neonate, and increasing evidence that this adverse intrauterine environment adversely programs the long-term cardiovascular and metabolic health of the offspring. Despite growing concern that obesity during pregnancy may also impact brain development, there are few published human studies examining the effect of either maternal pre-pregnancy obesity/overweight or excess gestational weight gain on neurodevelopmental outcomes in the offspring. We are investigating the neurodevelopment of preschool children born to mothers who were overweight or obese during pregnancy and participated in the LIMIT trial (Chief Investigator: Prof. Jodie Dodd). To date, LIMIT is the largest ever randomised controlled trial of an intervention to limit gestational weight gain in overweight/obese women, and its effects on maternal and child health outcomes. This follow-up study will comprehensively assess cognitive, motor and psycho-behavioural development in the children of the LIMIT mothers and in a control group of children born to normal weight mothers, at 3 years of age. In addition to differentiating the relative influences of gestational weight gain and body mass index at the start of pregnancy on neurodevelopmental outcomes, this study will determine if a maternal diet and lifestyle intervention to control gestational weight gain improves these child outcomes. It will also determine if these children have altered growth trajectories, and if this contributes to altered neurodevelopment. This will be the first prospective study of neurodevelopment in children born to obese/overweight mothers, and the first ever study of whether a dietary and lifestyle intervention designed to limit gestational weight gain during pregnancy improves neurodevelopmental outcomes.

 

 

Research Funding

  • National Health and Medical Research Foundation
  • M.S. McLeod Trust
  • Women's and Children's Hospital Research Foundation
  • SA Channel 7 Children's Research Foundation

Publications

Klein-Flügge MC, Nobbs D, Pitcher JB & Bestmann S. (2013) Variability of cortico-spinal excitability tracks the preparatory state of human motor cortex. Journal of Neuroscience 33(13):5564-72.

Giles LC, Whitrow M,J Rumbold AR, Davies CE, de Stavola BL, Pitcher JB, Davies MJ, Moore VM. (2013) Growth in early life and the development of obesity by age 9 years: are there critical periods and a role for an early life stressor? International Journal of Obesity. (advance online publication, January 15, 2013; doi:10.1038/ijo.2012.219)

Pitcher JB, Riley AM, Kurylowicz L, Doeltgen SH, Rothwell JC, McAllister SM, Smith AE, Clow A, Kennaway DJ & Ridding MC (2012). Physiological evidence consistent with reduced neuroplasticity in human adolescents born preterm. Journal of Neuroscience 32(46):16410 – 16416.

Pitcher JB, Schneider LA, Higgins RD, Drysdale JL, Burns NR, Nettelbeck TJ, Ridding MC, Haslam RR & Robinson JS (2012). Reduced corticomotor excitability and motor skills development in children born preterm. Journal of Physiology 590(Pt 22):5827 – 5844.

Pitcher JB, Schneider LA, Drysdale JL, Ridding MC & Owens JA (2011).Motor System Development of the Preterm and Low Birthweight Infant. Clinics in Perinatology; Developmental Care for the High Risk Neonate. 38(4): 605 - 625

Smith AE, Ridding MC, Higgins RD, Wittert GA & Pitcher JB (2011). Cutaneous afferent input does not modulate motor intracortical inhibition in ageing men. European Journal of Neuroscience 34(9):1461-1469 (Impact factor: 3.658)

Smith AE, Sale MV, Higgins RD, Wittert GA & Pitcher JB (2011). Male human motor cortex stimulus-response characteristics are not altered by ageing. Journal of Applied Physiology 110: 206-212. (Impact factor: 3.73)

Smith AE, Ridding MC, Higgins RD, Wittert GA & Pitcher JB (2009). Age-related changes in short latency motor cortex inhibition. Experimental Brain Research 198(4):489-500. (Impact factor: 2.027)

Pitcher JB, Robertson AL, Cockington RA & Moore VM (2009). Prenatal growth and early postnatal influences on adult motor cortical excitability. Pediatrics 124(1): e128-e136. (Impact factor: 4.473)

Pitcher JB, Henderson-Smart DJ & Robinson JS (2006). Prenatal programming of human motor function. Advances in Experimental Medicine & Biology 573:41-57.

Pitcher JB, Robertson AL, Clover EC & Jaberzadeh S (2004). Facilitation of cortically evoked potentials with motor imagery during post-exercise depression of motor cortex excitability. Experimental Brain Research 160(4): 409 - 417. (Impact factor: 2.304)

Pitcher JB, Ridding MC & Miles TS (2003). Bidirectional, frequency-dependent plasticity in the adult human motor cortex. Clinical Neurophysiology 114(7): 1265-1271. (Impact factor: 2.538)

Pitcher JB, Ogsten KM & Miles TS (2003). Age and sex differences in human motor cortex input-output characteristics. Journal of Physiology (London) 546(2): 605 - 613. (Impact factor: 4.346)

Pitcher JB & Miles TS (2002). Cortical excitability changes with imposed versus voluntary fatigue in human hand muscles. Journal of Applied Physiology. 92(5): 2131 - 2138. (Impact factor: 3.178)

Ridding MC, Brouwer B, Miles TS, Pitcher JB & Thompson PD (1999). Changes in muscle responses to stimulation of the motor cortex induced by peripheral nerve stimulation in human subjects. Experimental Brain Research 131: 135 - 143. (Impact factor: 2.304)

Pitcher JB & Miles TS (1997). The influence of muscle blood flow on fatigue during intermittent human hand-grip exercise and recovery. Clinical & Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology 24:471 - 476. (Impact factor: 1.78)

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Entry last updated: Wednesday, 29 Oct 2014

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