Richard Faull: A life in science is a life spent helping others

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of interviewing leading neuroscientist, Professor Sir Richard Faull, on behalf of Brain Research New Zealand (BRNZ). It was one of the most memorable interviews I’ve ever done – Richard’s intellect and passion for science are crystal-clear, but it was his overriding love of helping people that really stuck with me, and it reminded me that not all senior academics are gruff and aloof 🙂 I’ve received special permission from Richard to publish the resulting article here, and it will also appear in BRNZ’s annual report (Download the 2017 PDF). I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it

“From the moment I laid my hands on it, I was hooked. It just seemed like magic,” said Professor Sir Richard Faull, recalling a memory from the 1960s. Richard was in his third year at the University of Otago’s medical school when he first came into contact with the organ that would go on to define his career – the human brain. Now aged 72, married to Diana and with five grown-up children, his fascination with the cerebrum is stronger than ever.

Richard is an internationally recognised expert on the workings of the human brain, and on the neurodegenerative diseases that can affect it, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. He is founder and director of the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research, and an ardent advocate for collaborative science. “I could never have dreamed that I’d build such an incredible team, or collaborated with so many international research groups, throughout my career,” he said. “But we can do so much more when we work together.”

It was this idea that drove Richard to team up with Cliff Abraham – a noted Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Otago – to bid for a national Centre of Research Excellence – Brain Research New Zealand – Rangahau Roro Aotearoa (BRNZ). Launched in early 2015, BRNZ has brought together almost 70 research groups and clinicians from across New Zealand, with the aim of unlocking the secrets of the ageing brain. “We want to fundamentally change the way brain research is done – not just in New Zealand, but in the wider world,” said Richard.

By 2036, one in four New Zealanders aged over 65 will be disabled by an ageing-related brain disorder. Ageing-related neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s are accompanied by immense social, economic and healthcare costs, and place huge burdens on individuals, their family and whanau. “I’ve worked with so many families impacted by Alzheimer’s, a most tragic disease that destroys the human mind. We may not be able to cure it, but if we can slow it by five years, we’d cut the prevalence of the disease in New Zealand by 50%, allowing people to live longer and have a higher quality of life,” Richard said.

It’s very clear that helping people is a deep and enduring passion of Richard’s – one that he credits to his upbringing in Tikorangi, a tiny rural town in North Taranaki. The second son in a family of five, with parents who ran the area’s general store, Richard grew up in a busy, yet traditional household. “The town was small, so we sold everything,” he said. “And my parents were like social counsellors for the whole community – people came first. We didn’t have much money, but my mum often said that we were the luckiest family in the world, because we were surrounded by friends.”

Richard has carried that attitude through his entire career. And not only has it endowed him with a humility rarely seen at the upper levels of academia; it has also opened the doors to some truly ground-breaking research. It all started in 1970. After taking a year out of his medical studies to pursue a research degree, Richard qualified as a doctor at the turn of the decade. A PhD on movement disorders in the rat brain followed, after which he was offered a Harkness Fellowship. That gave him the opportunity to work in the US for three-and-a-half years – first at NASA, and then at MIT and Harvard. He returned to New Zealand and joined the University of Auckland, inspired and motivated to further his work on the human brain.

And it was a conversation with a genetics professor that sealed his fate. “He’d been looking after 400 NZ families with Huntington’s disease. We knew that it was caused by a dominant gene, so if you had the gene, you’d get the disease; and once the first symptoms appeared, you’d be dead within 15 years. Getting that diagnosis was a literal death sentence,” explained Richard. “But the problem was that no-one had identified the gene that caused it. That meant that we couldn’t test for it, so couldn’t be sure that the diagnosis was correct.”

A number of these families then did something that Richard describes as “the ultimate gift, which changed my life” – they donated the brain of their deceased loved one to science, in the hope that they could use it to further their understanding of the disease. And so, working closely with a neuropathologist, Richard started to investigate cell damage in the basal ganglia – the area of the brain that controls movement. Their findings were rather unexpected. “We found that the pathology of the pattern of cell death was different in each and every case. This really worried me – it contradicted all of the text books!”

They realised that they needed more information about each brain donor, so employing a psychologist, they collected the histories and doctor’s notes related to every person whose brain they were investigating. When they put the two stories together, they discovered that the variations in the pathology matched the variations in the symptoms. “We could say that this patient had this pattern of symptoms because of the damage in this particular portion of the brain. It was revolutionary,” said Richard. These results kick-started an entirely new approach to human brain research, and the relationships he had developed with these families allowed Richard to set up the now word-famous Neurological Foundation Douglas Human Brain Bank.

“Using this brain tissue, we’ve been able to do incredible research – we were the first to show that the human brain has stem cells in it, and that it continues to produce them throughout life,” he said. “In more recent years, we’ve shown that we can keep donated brain cells alive in a dish, and trial new drugs against them. Our ability to do all this is due entirely to the generosity of these very special families.”

Richard’s warmth and positivity, as well as his commitment to openness and collaboration, makes him a fantastic mentor for younger scientists. He spent over 20 years teaching first year medical students, and he regularly takes plasticized brains into schools and youth groups to inspire children. He also instigated the now-annual Brain Day that invites the community to the university campus to learn more about neurodegenerative diseases. In January of this year, Richard was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to brain research. Modest to the core, Richard accepted his knighthood by saying, “It’s important to realise that the recognition is not just for me, it’s actually for the brain researchers across the country and the way we work together as a team. I share this with all of those research groups.”

With Cliff, Richard continues to lead BRNZ’s research efforts, and work closely with families with brain disease. There is no sign of him slowing down, and that’s because, ultimately, he loves what he does. “My career is a privilege. Every day that I get to work with incredible clinicians and scientists, or help a family to navigate the latest research, is a privilege. I am incredibly lucky to live this life.”.