Neurodegenerative disorders

Neurodegenerative disorders

Microscope image of neural stem cells image
Neurodegenerative disorders are conditions in which cells in the brain break down, causing problems with how people move, think, feel or behave. They are a diverse group of conditions including motor neurone disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.
Our research aims to understand the causes of neurodegenerative disorders and work towards new treatments for these conditions.


Our research

Neurodegenerative disorders are associated with cell death in the brain. Cell death could be a direct cause of neurodegenerative disorders or a consequence of other processes that damage brain cells.

Our researchers are:

  • Finding genes responsible for neurodegenerative disorders.
  • Studying how cell death occurs and how it impacts on neurodegenerative disorders.
  • Developing drugs to block cell death in neurodegenerative disorders.
  • Investigating how the immune system contributes to neurodegenerative disorders.

We are also performing research relevant to other conditions with altered brain function, such as:

  • Studying normal brain development and how this is altered in intellectual disability syndromes.
  • Exploring how a common parasite changes brain cells and how this could contribute to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

What are neurodegenerative disorders?

Neurodegenerative disorders are conditions that predominantly affect cells in the brain, called neurons.

Neurons are specialised cells that allow the brain to communicate with the rest of the body.

When neurons become damaged or die, there is a loss of brain activity leading to problems with movement or mental functioning.

What are the symptoms of neurodegenerative disorders?

The symptoms of neurodegenerative disorders vary depending on which brain regions are affected.

Some neurodegenerative disorders mainly cause problems with movement (ataxias), while others mainly cause problems with mental functioning (dementias).

Some of the most common neurodegenerative disorders are:

  • Alzheimer’s disease – a form of dementia in which mental functioning, particularly memory, is impaired.
  • Parkinson’s disease – a condition resulting from the degeneration of certain neurons, leading to impaired control of body movements.
  • Motor neurone disease – a group of diseases in which the neurons that control the muscles degenerate and die, leading to loss of muscle control and eventually paralysis.
  • Huntington’s disease – an inherited neurodegenerative disorder that causes problems with both movement and mental functioning.

Most neurodegenerative disorders develop later in life and are progressive, meaning they lead to increasing disability over time.

What causes neurodegenerative disorders?

Some neurodegenerative disorders are caused by inherited genetic changes. These disorders run in families: the faulty gene is transmitted from parents to their children. Examples of genetic neurodegenerative disorders include Huntington’s disease, and rare cases of motor neurone disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

The majority of neurodegenerative disorders are due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. This makes it difficult to predict who will develop disease.

Specific genetic changes that increase the chance of disease have been identified for some conditions, but in most cases the genetic influences on neurodegenerative disorders are not well understood.

Environmental factors also contribute to neurodegenerative disorders. For example, there is evidence linking Parkinson’s disease with long-term exposure to pesticides, toxins and chemicals.

The greatest known risk factor for many neurodegenerative disorders is age. In Australia there are more than 400,000 people living with dementia and around 80,000 people with Parkinson’s disease. These figures are likely to rise as the population ages, making neurodegenerative disorders a growing healthcare concern.

How are neurodegenerative disorders treated?

There are currently no drugs to prevent or cure neurodegenerative disorders.

Medications to control symptoms can be very effective. Other approaches to manage symptoms and maintain daily activities include physiotherapy, speech pathology, occupational therapy and psychiatry. A multidisciplinary approach is typically applied to improve the quality of life for people with neurodegenerative disorders.

We are committed to research to find much-needed new treatments for neurodegenerative disorders.

What support is available?

For more information about specific neurodegenerative disorders, please visit the following websites:


Professor Melanie Bahlo

Photo of Professor Melanie Bahlo
Laboratory Head; Leader, Healthy Development and Ageing Theme

Dr Rory Bowden

Dr Rory Bowden photographed smiling at the camera
Genomics Laboratory Head and Centre Manager, WEHI Advanced Genomics Facility

Professor Peter Czabotar

Peter Czabotar
Joint Division Head

Professor Guillaume Lessene

Professor Guillaume Lessene in a laboratory
Laboratory Head; Leader, New Medicines and Advanced Technologies Theme

Associate Professor Chris Tonkin

Associate Professor Chris Tonkin in his office
Associate Professor
Acting Division Head, Laboratory Head

Associate Professor Rosie Watson

Associate Professor Rosie Watson
Associate Professor
Joint Laboratory Head

Associate Professor Nawaf Yassi

Associate Professor Nawaf Yassi
Associate Professor
Joint Laboratory Head
Super Content: 
Two male researchers standing in a laboratory

Our researchers have revealed how a key protein protects against the death of neurons that occurs in Parkinson's disease.

Professor Melanie Bahlo in the library

Professor Melanie Bahlo has contributed to discovering 22 genes involved in human disease, particularly genetic brain disorders.

Dr Jason Brouwer in a laboratory

Institute researchers uncovered key steps involved in programmed cell death, offering new targets for the treatment of diseases including lupus, cancers and neurodegenerative diseases.