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Further funding for innovative Otago health research

Friday 21 June 2013

Further funding for innovative Otago health research

Two Otago researchers have received a total of around $1m to pursue innovative projects as part of a follow-up to the Health Research Council’s (HRC) recent annual funding round. The researchers’ projects, which were on a HRC reserve list, involve improving smoke-free messages and brain mechanisms regulating memory, respectively.

Professor Cliff Abraham (Department of Psychology) has been awarded $569,000 to pursue a project titled “Astrocyte-Neuron Communication in a Novel Homeostatic Form of Metaplasticity”. Professor Abraham is Director of the Brain Health Research Centre, which is one of the University’s 14 flagship Research Centres.

He and colleagues aim to determine whether a common but poorly understood type of non-nerve brain cell known as an astrocyte plays a previously unsuspected role in regulating synaptic plasticity, the mechanism that underpins learning and memory.

The researchers will investigate whether astrocytes monitor ongoing nerve cell activity and use this information to control subsequent memory-related changes in synaptic transmission.

Such regulation may be important for maintaining normal learning and memory, and its impairment may be a contributing factor in Alzheimer’s Disease.

To test this idea, the researchers will investigate whether these regulatory mechanisms are impaired in a model of the disease and whether normal plasticity can be restored by drug treatments. Understanding these processes may help identify new molecular targets for therapeutic interventions to rescue impaired memory and cognition.

Professor Abraham says he is surprised and delighted to have received the HRC support and pleased that the project can now go forward.

“Astrocytes represent an exciting frontier of research as it is becoming increasingly clear that these cells modify and regulate nerve cell activity in ways that we still know very little about,” he says.

Professor Janet Hoek (Department of Marketing) has gained $503,000 for a project that will develop and test new on-packet tobacco warnings and smoke-free messages so that these better encourage quitting among different sub-groups of smokers.

New evidence suggests smoking addiction increasingly occurs among young adults, whose smoking prevalence, particularly among Māori and Pacific, remains disproportionately high.

Professor Hoek says that while on-packet warnings do promote quit attempts among some smokers, cessation rates could be enhanced if these warnings better recognised and influenced the very different sub-groups within the wider smoker population.

The project, titled “SMIRQ: Smokefree Messages: Interpretations, Responses and Quitting” aims to provide an evidence base that results in more effective on-pack warnings and campaigns linked to these.

This project will extend pilot work undertaken by members of the ASPIRE2025 research theme, apply international findings to New Zealand, and test how young adult non-smokers, smokers, and recent quitters interpret and respond to social, denormalisation, second-hand smoke, and health warning themes.

Professor Hoek says the outcome will, for the first time, inform use of more targeted and salient messages that better address inequalities among young adult smokers.

“New measures to deter smoking initiation, encourage quitting, and maintain smoke-free behaviour among this group will be key to achieving the goal of a smoke-free Aotearoa by 2025,” she says.

Team members also include Professor Richard Edwards, Emeritus Professor Phil Gendall and Dr Ninya Maubach, who are all members of ASPIRE2025, one of the University’s 15 officially-designated research themes.


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