Dr Julia Pitcher
- BAppSc(Ex&SpSc); BSc(Hons); PhD
Lloyd Cox Senior Research Fellow
Research Program Leader, Neuromotor Plasticity and Development group
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
|Dr Julia Pitcher
||Co-Director, Lloyd Cox Senior Research Fellow
|Professor Michael Ridding
||Co-Director, NH&MRC Senior Research Fellow
|Dr Nicolette Hodyl
||M.S. McLeod Research Fellow
|Dr Michael Stark
|Dr Luke Schneider
|Dr Mitchell Goldsworthy
|Dr Brenton Hordacre
|Ms Rebecca Collins
||Doctoral student (p/t)
|Mr. Lynton Graetz
|Ms Tara Crawford
||Research Assistant/Honours student
|Ms. Amy Garrett
|Ms Natalie Aboustate
Mr Jago Van Dam
|Ms Olivia-Paris Quin
|Ms. Samantha Newall
|Ms. Jessica Martin
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.
- 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
JB (2016). Brain Stimulation in Children Born Preterm – Promises and Pitfalls. Section
II: NIBS in Pediatric Neurological Conditions, Chapter 11. In Pediatric Brain
Stimulation. Edited by Adam Kirton and Donald L. Gilbert. Elsevier, San Diego.
Hodyl NA, Crawford T, McKerracher L,
Lawrence A, Pitcher JB & Stark
MJ (2016). Cord blood neurotrophins are selectively altered following obstetric
and antenatal exposures across the preterm period. Early Human Development (accepted for publication)
Hodyl NA, Schneider LA, Vallence AM,
Clow A, Ridding MC & Pitcher JB
(2016). The cortisol awakening response influences learning of a serial
sequence task. International Journal of Psychophysiology.
Goldsworthy MR, Vallence AM, Yang R, Pitcher JB & Ridding MC (2016). Combined transcranial alternating current stimulation
and cTBS: a novel approach for neuroplasticity induction. European Journal of Neuroscience 43(4):572-9.
Schneider LA, Goldsworthy MR, Cole JP,
Ridding MC & Pitcher JB (2016). The influence of short-interval intracortical
facilitation when assessing developmental changes in short-interval
intracortical inhibition. Neuroscience
Hunter DS, Hazel SJ, Kind KL, Liu H, Marini D, Giles LC, De Blasio M,
Owens JA, Pitcher JB & Gatford
KL (2015). Placental and fetal growth restriction, size at birth and
neonatal growth alter cognitive function and behaviour in sheep in an age- and
sex-specific manner. Physiology &
Behaviour 152(Part A):1-10.
Schneider LA, Burns NR, Giles LC,
Nettelbeck TJ, Hudson IL, MC Ridding & Pitcher
JB (2015). Processing speed deficits are confounded by motor dysfunction in
adolescents born preterm Child Neuropsychology
Baetu I, Burns NR, Urry K, Barbante GG
& Pitcher JB (2015). Commonly-occurring
polymorphisms in the COMT, DRD1 and DRD2 genes influence different aspects of
motor sequence learning in humans. Neurobiology
of Learning and Memory 125:176-88.
Vallence AM, Goldsworthy MR, Hodyl NA,
Semmler JG, Pitcher JB & Ridding MC (2015). Inter- and intra-subject
variability of motor cortex plasticity following continuous theta-burst
stimulation. Neuroscience. 304:266-278.
Goldsworthy MR, Vallence AM, Hodyl NA,
Semmler JG, Pitcher JB & Ridding MC (2015). Probing changes in corticospinal
excitability following theta burst stimulation of the human primary motor
cortex. Clinical Neurophysiology 127(1):740-7.
JB, Doeltgen SH, Goldsworthy MR, Schneider LA, Vallence AM,
Smith AE, Semmler JG, McDonnell MN & Ridding MC (2015). A comparison of two
methods for estimating 50% of the maximal motor evoked potential. Clinical Neurophysiology 126(12):2337-41.
Hunter DS, Hazel SJ, Kind KL, Liu H,
Marini D, Owens JA, Pitcher JB &
Gatford KL (2015). Do I turn left or right? Sex, age, experience and learning
strategy determine maze test performance in the sheep. Physiology & Behaviour 139:244-53.
Goldsworthy MR, Pitcher JB & Ridding MC (2014). Spaced non-invasive brain
stimulation: prospects for inducing long-lasting human cortical plasticity. Neurorehabilitation & Neural Repair 29(8):714-21.
Schneider LA, Burns NR, Giles LC,
Higgins RD, Nettelbeck TJ, Ridding MC & Pitcher JB (2014). Cognitive abilities in adolescents born preterm.
Journal of Pediatrics 165(1):
Vallence AM, Schneider LA, Pitcher JB & Ridding MC (2014).
Long-interval facilitation and inhibition are differentially affected by conditioning stimulus
intensity over different time courses. Neuroscience
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
Giles LC, Whitrow MJ 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
MR, Pitcher JB & Ridding MC
(2012). Neuroplastic modulation of inhibitory motor cortical networks by spaced
theta burst stimulation protocols. Brain
MR, Pitcher JB & Ridding MC (2012).
A comparison of two different
continuous theta burst stimulation paradigms applied to the human primary motor
cortex. Clinical Neurophysiology 123(11):2256
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 –
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.
MR, Pitcher JB & Ridding MC
(2012). The application of spaced rTMS protocols induces long-lasting
neuroplastic changes in the human motor cortex. European Journal of Neuroscience 35(1): 125 - 134
Schneider LA, Drysdale JL, MR Ridding & JA Owens (2011). Motor System
Development of the Preterm and Low Birthweight Infant. Clinics in Perinatology.38(4): 605–625.
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
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.
AE, Higgins RD, Ridding MC, Wittert GA & Pitcher JB (2009). Age-related changes in short latency motor
cortex inhibition. Experimental Brain
Pitcher JB, Robertson AL, Cockington RA &
Moore VM (2009). Prenatal growth and early postnatal influences on adult motor
cortical excitability. Pediatrics 124(1):
JB, Henderson-Smart DJ & Robinson
JS (2006). Prenatal programming of human motor function. Advances in
Experimental Medicine & Biology 573:41-57
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.
JB, Ridding MC & Miles TS (2003). Bidirectional,
frequency-dependent plasticity in the adult human motor cortex. Clinical Neurophysiology 114(7): 1265-1271.
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.
JB & Miles TS (2002). Cortical excitability changes with
imposed versus voluntary fatigue in human hand muscles. Journal of Applied Physiology. 92(5): 2131 – 2138.
Ridding MC, Brouwer B, Miles TS, Pitcher JB & Thompson PD (2000). Changes
in muscle responses to stimulation of the motor cortex induced by peripheral
nerve stimulation in human subjects.. Experimental
Brain Research 131: 135 - 143.
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.
Entry last updated: Thursday, 11 Aug 2016