Turner success in NHMRC Investigator Grants

In an extraordinary round of funding achievement, Turner Institute researchers have secured over $7.6m in NHMRC Investigator Awards announced last week. Six researchers, from junior to senior levels, secured funding with a remarkable success rate of 50%. Projects reflected the Turner core research strengths in brain mapping and modelling, neurodevelopment, ageing and neurodegeneration, brain injury and rehabilitation, and depression and sleep.

Congratulations to Professors Jennie Ponsford, Peter Anderson and Julie Stout, and to Drs Sharna Jamadar, Josh Wiley and Phil Ward. Below is a brief snapshot of how each project will deliver discovery and impact.

Enhancing quality of life for people living with traumatic brain injury

Professor Jennie Ponsford has spent the last three decades working the field of traumatic brain injury, and currently co-ordinates one of the world’s largest longitudinal outcome studies, which is tracking more than 2000 patients over 30 years following a traumatic brain injury.

“Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is the most significant cause of disability under the age of 45. The consequences of TBI add more than $2 billion in lifetime costs to the Australian healthcare system annually,” she said.

The Investigator Grant will allow Jennie and her team to undertake a variety of new treatment trials to improve the quality of life of people with traumatic brain injuries. These will include the evaluation of environmental management strategies for managing TBI patients in agitated states, reducing their reliance on medication; developing adapted cognitive behavioural therapies for managing fatigue and sleep disturbance; home-based trials on the effects of light therapy on patient fatigue; and memory interventions for patients experiencing cognitive difficulties.

“A critical aspect of our program will be to translate the outcomes of our research trials, and to develop some meaningful, evidence-based resources that will help clinicians to provide better outcomes for their TBI patients,” she said.

“This grant will enable us to deepen our understanding of the complex issues associated with traumatic brain injury, and hopefully make life better for people.”

Improving developmental milestones in babies born too early

Professor Peter Anderson is a world leading authority on understanding neurodevelopmental pathways in pre-term babies at risk of reduced cognitive and behaviour functioning.

Professor Anderson’s broad vision is to enhance the long-term quality of life for these infants.

“One area of focus is to better characterise the long-term neurodevelopmental problems that arise in at risk infants. A particular interest is looking at the impact on infants who were exposed to low-to-moderate levels of alcohol during pregnancy, with a view to potentially informing public health policies,” he said.

A second area of investigation will be to examine brain aging in individuals who are born very pre-term.

“My program will investigate markers for accelerated brain aging using MRI, as well as exploring the link between apolipoprotein E (APOE) genotype - linked to dementia, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease – and brain aging in very pre-term individuals.”

Finally, Professor Anderson will also assess the effectiveness of new intervention strategies for children born at risk of neurodevelopmental impairments, including trials of antenatal and neonatal interventions to reduce brain injury.

“The number of infants born each year who are ‘at risk’ for neurodevelopmental impairment is enormous, and the burden to society is immense. This research is about understanding the risks, and developing ways for predicting better outcomes for these babies and their families.”

Knocking down Huntington’s disease

People living with Huntington’s disease will be the beneficiaries of research to be conducted by Professor Julie Stout, who has led the way in defining the clinical – and particularly cognitive – aspects of Huntington’s disease, including how they arise subtly in the pre-diagnosis phase of the disease, and then gradually progress to dementia.

“A current limitation is the lack of reliable cognitive outcomes (cognitive tests) that can detect treatment effects in clinical trials. Without these outcomes, new therapeutic strategies cannot be assessed in relation to their benefits on cognitive aspects of Huntington’s disease”, she said.

Professor Stout’s research over the course of the Investigator Grant will focus on identifying novel cognitive measures to enable robust assessment of treatments in Huntington’s clinical trials.

Developing personalised treatments for depression in cancer patients

Dr Josh Wiley’ Emerging Leader Investigator Grant will allow him to identify ways to improve the effectiveness of treatment of sleep disturbance and depression in people with cancer.

“While we have effective treatments available for affective disturbances in cancer, treatments don’t work reliably for everyone. It’s often a case of trial and error to find the right one,” said Dr Wiley.

“What we know around mental health is that if people are subjected to treatments that don’t work, they often disengage. This places a lot of pressure on clinicians to get it right the first time.”

Working collaboratively with a number of networks globally, Dr Wiley will work with existing data and new trials to develop algorithms that will allow clinicians to better predict the effectiveness of a specific sleep or depression treatment on an individual.

“We plan to cast a wide net on psychosocial factors that impact treatment outcomes, with the intent to build a solid base of evidence on which to select treatments for individuals. The aim is to deliver people with faster, better outcomes during a difficult time in their lives.”

Discovering early biomarkers of age-related decline

With an ageing population comes a number of challenges, including the social and economic burden of dementia. In Australia, the percentage of deaths and disability-free years lost to dementia has increased in the last 20 years, and is predicting to continue rising into the foreseeable future.

With her Emerging Leader Investigator Grant, Dr Sharna Jamadar’s will use novel biomedical imaging techniques to discover the earliest signs of age-related decline.

“My research will use magnetic resonance imaging-positron emission tomography to map brain structure, function and metabolism to predict the trajectory of ageing. I have recently developed a method that allows metabolic connectivity profiles to be calculated at the individual level.”

“This metric may be a powerful early biomarker for age-related neurodegeneration, which may help us to more accurately differentiate between ‘cognitively normal’ ageing and age-related decline and neurodegeneration.”

Understanding vascular dementia in the elderly

Quality of life in the elderly is drastically reduced by depression and dementia. Cerebrovascular disease (CVD) is a major risk factor for both of these conditions, and has been linked to both vascular depression and vascular dementia – the second most common form of dementia.

Dr Phil Ward, Emerging Leader Investigator Grant will investigate whether vascular dementia and vascular depression both arise from the same disease (CVD), and the clinical manifestation of cerebrovascular disease is determined by the specific brain networks affected. Dr Ward will use an integrated multidisciplinary approach which draws upon clinical neuropsychology, neuroimaging, biophysics, machine learning and network analysis to test a model of network-based neurodegeneration in CVD.