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Bold Strokes

It’s immediately obvious when talking to Lavinia Codd that she is fiercely intelligent, though how could someone with a PhD, who works at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) be anything but? When she was 31 Lavinia had a stroke.

Lavinia does not have any obvious physical deficits from her stroke, though she has lost sight in her left field of vision. Her deficits belong to the brain – she has damage to the hippocampus, which results in problems with *spatial learning and forming new memories, particularly visual memories. During Lavinia’s recovery from her stroke her doctors talked about her prognosis. She was told that she would have a steady recovery for 12/24 months and wherever she managed to get in that time would be the extent of her recovery. So at the 12 month mark, Lavinia became very concerned – she was dismayed at the thought that this was the extent to which she would recover. Consoling herself with the 24-month milestone, she continued with her rehabilitation, only to experience the same sense of dread as the 24 month mark approached. She realised she was unhappy to live out the rest of her days not having fully recovered.

At a loss as to what treatment would be most beneficial, it was suggested that she could continue her studies. Before Lavinia’s stroke, her second child had been born and she was using the child-rearing years to study science at the University of Queensland (UQ). So Lavinia went back to university to initially study plant biology part-time - “but plants don’t have strokes.” She had to develop a new way of learning due to the damage to her hippocampus and her temporal and occipital lobes. Determinedly Lavinia triumphed with UQ awarding her a place in the Advanced Studies in Science Program, which saw her searching for a mentor. QBI came to her attention and Professor Perry Bartlett became her mentor resulting in her working in his laboratory.

Lavinia spent a few years hiding the fact of her stroke. She says her sense of self was so wrapped up in the notion of being intelligent, that to admit to suffering a stroke would have people look at her in a different way – they might be constantly searching for evidence of the stroke. Eventually as Lavinia became more involved in stroke research, she realised that she was still angry about the limited prognosis doctors had given her. Her experience of recovery has been that of continuous incremental improvement – she is still improving! The existence of neuroplasticity gives Lavinia hope. Her research looks at one type of neuroplasticity - neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells, or neurons), which sees her spending her days counting brain cells and evaluating spatial learning. She tells me that the thrill of neuroscience is the discovery ‘that the more you know, the less you know”.

Tips for a healthy brain:

  • use it or lose it

  • exercise

  • never stop learning

  • binge drinking is damaging

She is passionate about stroke research and education, the fact that Lavinia has recovered from a stroke gives her the gravitas to engage a broader audience to learn about the research in Perry’s lab. Lavinia now speaks openly about her stroke, when a colleague recently congratulated her on a published interview, she quipped “What? Congratulations on having brain damage”. I think she’s a superhero!

*Spatial learning refers to the process through which animals encode information about their environment to facilitate navigation through space and recall the location of motivationally relevant stimuli.

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