2016 Scholars

Posted by on 20 July 2016

The cornerstone funding from the Selwyn Foundation plus additional grants from Family Trusts have enabled us to extend our grants to a record number of nine scholarships and two summer studentships.

Alexia Mengelberg – Massey University

Effects of fish oil supplementation on cognitive performance in older adults with mild cognitive impairment

Alexia MengelbergNutritional research has shown that older adults are not eating enough fish and seafood to reach the recommended daily allowance of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and yet epidemiological research has shown positive associations between fish consumption and both higher scores on cognitive tests and a slower rate in cognitive decline. DHA is an omega-3, poly-unsaturated fatty acid found in high amounts in oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel. DHA is commonly referred to as ‘essential fatty acid’ which reflects the fact that the human body cannot synthesise the precursors and therefore it must be consumed through food or taken as a supplement.

The extent to which environmental and genetic factors affect the progression from healthy age-related cognitive functioning to dementia remains unclear. Of particular interest is the APOE gene which is involved in the transport of fats and cholesterol within the brain. Research has shown that APOE4 allele carriers have an increased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease and also of gaining a cognitive improvement from taking fish oil supplementation. This study aims to conduct a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to investigate the effects of a high DHA fish oil supplement on cognitive performance in older adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), as well as to investigate the modulating effect of the APOE4 allele on changes in cognitive performance.

Older adults with MCI have a selective memory impairment but with no sign of dementia and a preserved ability to carry out everyday activities. MCI is considered the earliest detectible stage of dementia, and consequently this study hopes to contribute to our understanding of the effects of DHA supplementation on memory as well as the potential for using DHA as a preventative treatment for dementia.

Anthony Fitzpatrick – Canterbury University

Hip Assessment and Revision Prediction Using Acoustic Emission Monitoring - Research Summary

AnthonyFitzpatrickOsteoarthritis and other degenerative joint diseases can cause pain, a loss of mobility and significantly affect the quality of life of people suffering from these conditions. Joint replacement surgeries, such as Total hip replacements (THR), are one of the main treatments available to patients with advanced degenerative joint disease. Total hip replacement is becoming increasingly more common in New Zealand, and around the world, as a result of an aging population.

Research into inexpensive and non-invasive diagnostic techniques to determine the condition of joint replacement implants is currently of significant importance in the field of orthopaedics. As a result, a growing interest in utilising Acoustic Emission (AE) monitoring for this purpose has developed due to promising results from studies to date. AE monitoring is essentially the passive (listening) side of a traditional ultrasound, recording vibrations on the skin surface which are produced by an implant during dynamic patient motion. Over the past half century the AE monitoring technique has advanced considerably, producing some very promising results in orthopaedics by attempting to diagnose various prosthesis complications such as loosening, osteolysis, and infection.

Previous research at the University of Canterbury has developed a prototype AE diagnostic tool to assess the performance of joint implants, both in real patients (in-vivo) and in the laboratory (in-vitro). As a result, a significant amount of AE data from THR patients has been collected over the past three years. The aim of the current project is to develop a robust AE categorisation protocol which can be applied to the AE data to provide reliable correlations between the AE characteristics and clinical diagnoses of THR patients. Ultimately this would lead to a clinical diagnosis being made from AEs without the need for imaging techniques such as X-ray, CT, or MRI. As such, the new technique allows for testing of patients during the full dynamic range of motion, rather than a static image and does not subject the patient to any radiation.

Cobus Kilian - Waikato University

Purposes, Principles and Profit – An investigation into the organisational legitimacy of residential aged care providers

CobusKilian2016This research is about the perception(s) of strategic decision-makers in social purpose businesses and about how legitimacy is created and maintained in their businesses. It is specifically looking at community-based residential aged-care providers in the Waikato region.

It is focusing on three specific aspects of legitimacy. Firstly, the factors the strategic decision-makers identify as influencing their legitimacy; secondly, the sources that makes assessments of these organisations’ legitimacy and thirdly, motivations behind these legitimacy actions (for instance, moral or pragmatic reasons). Organisational legitimacy relates to the extent the organisation being assessed reflects the values or norms of the community it is a part of. Simply put, if an aged care facility is providing its services in a way that aligns with the values and norms held by that community, then the organisation is likely to be seen by community as legitimate, and will have a mandate to operate

I am utilising a Critical Appreciative Process as research methodology. Critical Appreciative Process is a combination of Appreciative Inquiry and Critical Theory. Both these well-established qualitative research methods have transformational aspirations and focus on enhancing human flourishing. With the help of four community-based aged care providers in the Waikato region, I set out to critically review the aged care landscape, with the intention of framing community-based providers as central to the future of our caring for our elderly within our Waikato community, and further afield.

Once completed, my study will be an original contribution to management research in the aged care sector. The study will provide clarity to community-based residential aged care providers, researchers and policy-makers on how the legitimacy of these organisations is constructed. I will highlight systemic factors that detract from improving the quality of life of frail elderly New Zealanders, and suggest improvements to aged care that enhances the dignity and quality of care of the frail elderly.

Jane Wu - Auckland University

Gene expression profiling in the human subthalamic nucleus in Parkinson’s disease

Jane WuParkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive, neurodegenerative disorder estimated to affect 1-2% in the population over the age of 65. It is one of the most common age-related neurodegenerative disorders in New Zealand. Over the past decade, deep brain stimulation therapy of the subthalamic nucleus (STN) has been successful in alleviating symptoms in advanced PD patients. However, the cellular mechanisms and neuro-scientific basis of the surgical procedure are not fully understood. The STN is considered as the “power-house” of the motor circuitry, playing an extremely important role in PD progression.

Abnormal neuronal signaling within this nucleus has been previously demonstrated in many animal models to be related to PD symptoms such as bradykinesia (slowness of movement), rigidity and resting tremor. This study intends to define pathological changes within the STN during PD in order to discover the molecular mechanisms which may play an important role in facilitating the benefits of deep brain stimulation therapy.

Eighteen post-mortem human brains, 9 PD and 9 controls, were taken from the Neurological Foundation NZ Human Brain Bank and the STN carefully dissected for next generation sequencing technologies. The RNA-seq experiment targeted 21,415 genes, achieving coverage of 98.3% of all known protein coding genes in the human genome. The aim this year is to fully analyse the expression of critical genes we have identified that were encoded in the resulting bioinformatics files. These files were created using specialised software in a high performance computing platform. These critical genes were shown to have significant differential expression within the STN between control and PD patients and will be taken for further validation using Nanostring technologies. These gene changes reflect important pathological changes within the STN and could improve understanding of deep brain stimulation and other therapies in future treatments of Parkinson’s disease.

Jo Conaglen – AUT University

What is the experience of older adults participating in their urban community

JoConaglen2016I am undertaking a phenomenological study that explores the experience of older adults going about everyday life within their urban neighbourhood. Population ageing and urbanisation are converging international trends, evident in New Zealand. City living poses particular challenges for older peoples’ ability to continue participating outside their home and its importance is strongly associated not only with health benefits to older people but to the community in which they live. Many older adults spend increasing amounts of time immersed in neighbourhoods and continued participation in everyday life within their neighbourhood makes it an important physical and social place for ageing. However, the influence of environment on participation remains under-explored.

Renewed interest in creating liveable cities, triggered in large by the recent World Health Organisation (WHO) strategic direction on Age-Friendly Cities, is influencing New Zealand’s city interests in being age-firendly. New Zealand cities are increasingly looking to explore how they might respond to the environmental needs of older residents within their urban neighbourhoods. The paucity of New Zealand research seeking to understand these issues within New Zealand cities suggests it is timely and relevant to study the experiences of people aged 85 years and older living and participating in the urban context. This study intends capturing the voices of those in advanced years (85+) as they experience their neighbourhood so that we may gain insights to better inform development/modification of city structures and services eg transportation, housing and urban development, to support opportunities for health and participation of older people. The study aligns with national and local policies supporting active ageing and ageing-in-place.

Renita Martis – Auckland University

The role of the cystine/glutamate antiporter in the eye: a target for delaying age related eye diseases?

RenitaMartis2016Age-related eye disease such as cataract, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration are responsible for more than 70% of blindness in New Zealanders over the age of 50 years and are associated with increased levels of oxidative stress. The tissues of the eye are constantly exposed to high levels of oxidative stress due to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight and are therefore particularly susceptible to oxidative damage. The use of antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress has been promoted as therapies to prevent age related eye diseases however; studies have shown inconsistent results due to a lack of understanding on the molecular pathways involved in minimising oxidative stress in the tissues of the eye.

In other tissues of the body, the cystine/glutamate antiporter (CGAP) has been shown to be involved in minimising oxidative stress by providing the amino acid cysteine for the synthesis of the antioxidant glutathione (GSH) and in the regulation of cystine/cysteine redox balance. In characterising these roles, researchers utilised a mouse which lacked CGAP referred to as a CGAP knockout mouse. It was shown that in the absence of CGAP there were substantially reduced levels of GSH in the cells that were derived from these mice and that the blood plasma cystine/cysteine balance was altered such that cystine levels were markedly increased relative to cysteine levels resulting in an oxidative shift. Interestingly, a similar shift in cystine/cysteine levels is also apparent in humans with increasing age.

To date, no one has examined the roles of CGAP in the eye and hence for my PhD project I will investigate the roles of CGAP in the eye and determine whether it represents a pathway that could be targeted to minimise oxidative stress. Collectively, I believe that the findings from my PhD project will lead to new strategies for enhancing antioxidant levels and restoring redox balance in the eye thus delaying the onset of age related eye diseases for which currently no preventative treatments exist.

Scott Brebner – Victoria University

A Game for Physiotherapeutic rehabilitation for Stroke Survivors

ScottBrebner2016Stroke is one of the most common ailments affecting older adults in Western societies. Such an incident can result in a loss or weakness of mental and motor functions, severely impacting the individual’s quality of life. With proper rehabilitation it is possible to recover from stroke and regain some of the lost capabilities. However, rehabilitation is often very taxing on the individual, both physically and mentally, and many people struggle with maintaining motivation to continue.

Those who lose the motivation inadvertently sabotage their own recovery. Without regular exercise of an appropriate level of intensity, the individual’s progress will wane they may lose interest or faith in their ability to recover. Such behaviour maximises the negative impact of the stroke but is both unnecessary and avoidable.

To combat this, I suggest the incorporation of a digital game system into the rehabilitation process. Such a game system’s purpose is to introduce a more engaging alternative to mundane physiotherapy exercises. The system would convert prescribed exercises into gameplay using a special physical controller, specifically designed to target lower limb rehabilitation. This game system would be tested by stroke survivors to ensure that it is both functional and enjoyable for an older audience. The system would be developed with support from health professionals to ensure the validity of the gameplay as a substitute for traditional rehabilitation methods.

Sophie Buchanan - Massey University

Drama Therapy for Older People with Dementia: A Pilot Study

SophieBuchanan2016Group drama therapy is a promising intervention for people with dementia in rest homes. Drama therapy enables participants to express themselves, explore the difficulties they encounter in their daily lives and discover new ways of coping, with the ultimate goal of improving their wellbeing. It also brings rest home residents together in an enjoyable activity, which may help to strengthen their relationships. However, despite its promise and widespread use, very little research has been conducted on the benefits of drama therapy for dementia. Indeed, only two previous studies have investigated this topic, both of which were restricted by a number of methodological limitations.

The present study aims to use more rigorous methodology to explore whether group drama therapy: reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, increases socialisation, improves psychological wellbeing, and is enjoyed by rest home residents with dementia. Residents will receive 10 weeks of drama therapy. Their results on a number of measures will be compared with a waiting-list control group and a conversation control group throughout the study, and at a 4-week follow-up period. This will allow us to assess whether drama therapy is more beneficial than standard care or general group activity, and whether any benefits remain after the therapy has ended. If drama therapy is found to be beneficial and enjoyable for people with dementia, then it could be recommended as a routine part of rest home care.

Yanita McLeay

The physiological effects of keratin protein supplementation in endurance athletes

Yanita McLeayOxidative stress occurs when the body’s antioxidant system is unable to remove reactive oxygen species (ROS) at an appropriate rate. Elevated levels of ROS, and associated oxidative stress, is a primary cause of aging and age-related diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, age-related macular degeneration, muscle wasting, heart disease and cancer. It may therefore be suggested that increasing antioxidant status throughout life and in the aging population may help prevent these ROS associated diseases.

Keratins are animal-based proteins high in the sulphur amino acid cysteine; an important precursor for the intracellular antioxidants glutathione (GSH) and taurine. GSH is involved in both the breakdown and removal ROS and therefore plays a key role in the antioxidant status of the body. Taurine is a non-protein amino acid involved in many processes including antioxidant activity, lipid metabolism, mitochondrial protein synthesis and muscle function. Taurine levels in the retina have been shown to decrease with age and contribute to macular degeneration, and taurine replenishment is known to alleviate retinal oxidative stress in rats. Therefore, an elevation in GSH and taurine status may decrease oxidative stress, protect the body from associated oxidative damage and contribute to the prevention of age-related diseases. 

The primary aim of this doctorate is to determine the effect of a novel proprietary keratin supplement antioxidant status; using casein-based protein as a control. This is being tested in male cyclists in a blinded, cross-over, and randomized study design protocol. Using exercise as a model for oxidative stress, both with and without keratin supplementation, blood and tissue antioxidant status, oxidative stress levels and associated impact on physical work capacity are being tested prior to and following an acute and chronic intake of the each supplement. Results from this study will have significant applications for enhancement of the health of the aging population and will contribute valuable information to the NZ health system for dealing with age-related diseases. Furthermore, this research will set the scene for future researchers to use these preliminary results in the design of projects focused on improving health in the aging population. 

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