Dr Julia Pitcher

Dr Julia Pitcher
 Position Lloyd Cox Senior Research Fellow
 Org Unit Paediatrics and Reproductive Health
 Email julia.pitcher@adelaide.edu.au
 Telephone +61 8 8313 1301
 Location Floor/Room G 17 ,  RAH - Norwich 77 ,   North Terrace
  • Biography/ Background


    • BAppSc(Ex&SpSc); BSc(Hons); PhD

    Current Appointments

    • Lloyd Cox 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, 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 Post-doctoral Researcher
    Dr Mitchell Goldsworthy
    Post-doctoral Researcher
    Dr Brenton Hordacre Post-doctoral Researcher
    Ms Rebecca Collins Doctoral student (p/t)
    Mr. Lynton Graetz Research Assistant
    Ms Tara Crawford
    Research Assistant/Honours student
    Ms. Amy Garrett Research Assistant
    Ms Natalie Aboustate
    Doctoral student

    Mr Jago Van Dam

    Honours student
    Ms Olivia-Paris Quin Honours student
    Ms. Samantha Newall
    Honours student
    Ms. Jessica Martin 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

    Pitcher 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. 100:12-18.

    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 312:19-25.

    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 27:1-16.

    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.

    Pitcher 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): 170-177.

    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 Letters 570:114-8.

    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 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 Obesity 37(4):513-9.

    Goldsworthy MR, Pitcher JB & Ridding MC (2012). Neuroplastic modulation of inhibitory motor cortical networks by spaced theta burst stimulation protocols. Brain Stimulation 6(3):340-5.

    Goldsworthy 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 – 2263.

    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, 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.

    Goldsworthy 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

    Pitcher JB, 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.

    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

    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.

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

    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.

    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.

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

    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.

    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.

    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.

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Entry last updated: Saturday, 6 Oct 2018

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