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The University of Oxford has enjoyed a successful collaboration with McGill University in Canada since 2009. Projects supported by the scheme have recently led to the publication of two significant research papers.

The collaboration between teams led by Philip Biggin from Oxford University’s Department of Biochemistry and Derek Bowie from the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at McGill was originally fostered by through a workshop funded by the scheme.

The partnership has flourished and has resulted in an important advance in our understanding of the regulation of kainate receptors. Writing in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, Musgaard et al., investigated the effects of cation binding site mutations on kainate receptor desensitization. The findings highlight the role of cation binding in controlling the transition between the activated and desensitized states of the receptors. However, Philip Biggin is quick to point out that further work on whole tissue samples is required to fully understand the physiological implications of these findings.

In a further collaboration, Katie Watkins from from the Department of Experimental psychology’s Speech and Brain Group has been working with Denise Klein, from the Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at McGill to investigate the development of language. Their grant for a pilot project together was awarded at the start of the scheme in 2010. The collaboration has grown and led to a number of joint publications the most recent of which looks at the effects of learning a second language.

The paper in press in Brain and Language reports structural changes in the left inferior frontal gyrus of individuals who learned a second language after becoming proficient in their first language. This increased cortical thickness was not observed in monolinguals or individuals who had learned their languages simultaneously. The results demonstrate that learning a second language after gaining proficiency in the first language modifies brain structure in an age-dependent manner. The authors speculate that this may provide some explanation for why many people find it difficult to learn a second language later in life.

The last funding round is now closed. However, the partnership has been developed into a tripartite scheme including the University of Oxford, McGill and the prestigious Zentrum Fur Neurowissenschaften (ZNZ), Zurich (a partnership of neuroscience groups in Zurich University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). The new scheme will launch in 2014.