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Unravelling Mysteries Of The Human Body And Mind Through Research

University of Waikato researchers will delve deep into human health and psychology over the next three years, investigating how we develop sight, how our memories affect planning, and how an antibiotic-resistant infection might be targeted. 

The three research projects have together received more than $1.4 million in Marsden Fund grants; they are among 13 new Marsden-funded programmes at the University this year.

The beginnings of human vision

Very little is known about how human sight develops in the womb. We have learned there is enough light in the uterus for a foetus to see, and that foetuses prefer to look towards face-like images – just like newborn babies. But how does our ability to see emerge?

In response to this question, Professor Vincent Reid and his team will investigate two areas: how to accurately model light in the womb, and how to track foetal eye movements.

They will explore how light enters the uterus using computational modelling which takes into account the stage of pregnancy, the thickness of different tissues and fluids in the mother’s body, the clothes she wears, and whether the foetal eyelids are open or closed. This will explain the foetal visual environment. Next, the researchers will directly track foetuses’ eye movements in response to visual stimuli using 2D ultrasound, something which has never been done before.

Professor Reid says this project will enable future research into the human visual system. “For example, researchers will be able to use these new tools to show foetuses specific shapes of light and see their responses. Mapping this behaviour will tell us how humans develop sight in utero,” he says.

“Our research will draw on psychology, medical imaging, obstetrics, and physics, forming the foundation for a new interdisciplinary field of study: foetal visual perception.”

Using our memories to plan for the future

We use memory to remember the past, but also to imagine possible future situations so we can prepare for them. As we get older our memory of personal life events declines, inhibiting our ability to think about the future. The ability to remember and plan ahead is important for maintaining independent living and quality of life in older age.

Dr Aleea Devitt will explore new aspects of memory, imagination, and the critical interactions between past and future thinking. In her series of three studies, Dr Devitt will ask younger and older adults to do things like recall real past memories, imagine future scenarios, and later, recall those imaginary scenarios. These experiments will help unpack the ways memory and imagination can influence each other.

“My research will examine the way memory changes and declines as we get older, and identify the consequences of these changes for our ability to imagine future scenarios,” says Dr Devitt.

“This work will pave the way for interventions that preserve and enhance memory in later life.”

Finding the weakness in a pathogen’s armour

Bacterial pathogens which cause disease often absorb the chemical sulphate from their host to help them grow and spread infection. But not all pathogens can absorb sulphate, so how do they get this ingredient they need to thrive? The answer could help provide a new weapon in the fight against infections that are resistant to existing medicines.

Dr Joanna Hicks and her colleagues have discovered a different way in which the pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae potentially acquires sulphur, without the need for sulphate.

“Our research will investigate this new sulphur acquisition pathway to see how it works,” she says. “We’ll test the ability of bacteria to grow on different kinds of sulphur and how this affects infection of human cells.”

The study could present a new way to treat antibiotic-resistant gonorrhoea using medicines which prevent the pathogen from absorbing sulphur. “These learnings could then be applied to treating other similar pathogens,” says Dr Hicks.

The three project titles and investigators are as follows:

The development of the human visual system in utero: an experimental and computational modelling approach

  • Professor Vincent Reid, University of Waikato
  • Associate Professor Tim Donovan, University of Cumbria
  • Dr Kirsty Dunn, Lancaster University
  • Dr Jacob Heerikhuisen, University of Waikato
  • Mr Martin Necas, Waikato District Health Board

Thinking backwards and forwards: Characteristics and consequences of age-related memory decline

  • Dr Aleea Devitt, University of Waikato

What is the alternative? Sulphur acquisition in the human pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae

  • Dr Joanna Hicks, University of Waikato
  • Dr Michael Berney, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
  • Professor Magdalene So, University of Arizona

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