News and Views

UCC scientists win funding for health inequality, childhood obesity, and schizophrenia research

27 Jul 2022

The Health Research Board has announced its support for three University College Cork-led projects that will tackle health inequality, prevent childhood obesity, and explore how our gut can affect our memory, concentration, and social interactions.

The Health Research Board (HRB) today announced that it was funding nine new projects under Emerging Investigator Awards for Health (EIA) 2022, three of which are led by researchers at University College Cork (UCC).

Based in UCC’s Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21), Dr Monica O'Mullane has been funded to develop a Health Impact Assessment Implementation Model (HIA-IM) - a tool aimed at tackling health inequalities.

“Public health research has shown that our health and wellbeing are affected by the circumstances into which we are born, grow, live, work and age,” Dr Mullane explained.

“HIA-IM is now needed more than ever to ‘health-proof’ public policies as we cope with challenges such as the global climate emergency. HIA-IM will help reduce the risk of policies that impact adversely on health and wellbeing, with particular reference to Ireland’s marginalised groups,” she said.

A lecturer in UCC’s School of Public Health, Dr Karen Matvienko-Sikar has been awarded funding to develop a standardised approach to measuring infant feeding outcomes to prevent childhood obesity.

“Approximately one in five children experience obesity worldwide, making it a major public health challenge. What, how and when children are fed in the first year of life contributes to childhood obesity risk,” Dr Matvienko-Sikar said. 

“This research aims to provide researchers, practitioners, and policymakers with a toolkit of measurement instruments, such as questionnaires and clinical assessments, to better evaluate infant-feeding interventions and prevent childhood obesity. 

“This will enhance the evaluation of interventions to prevent childhood obesity, with potential for significant impact on, and meaningful improvements for, population health,” she said.

Dr Linda Katona is a neuroscientist based at UCC’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience and the APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre has also been awarded by the HRB’s Emerging Investigator Awards for Health. Her research seeks to identify the gut microbiome-responsive brain biomarkers of cognitive impairments relevant to schizophrenia.

“Ireland has among the highest rates of mental illness in Europe, and schizophrenia is one of the leading psychiatric diagnoses nationally and the one carrying the biggest economic cost. Schizophrenia patients have problems remembering their past, are unable for social interactions and cannot retain information long enough to use it. Gut microbes affect our mood and motivation and interfere with our mental abilities,” Dr Katona said.

“Recent research shows that information from our gut gets transferred to our brain through the vagus nerve, and that disruptions in the communication between gut microbes, vagus and brain often accompany the core symptoms of schizophrenia. This project will examine this and attempt to answer questions such as how our gut microbiome, through the vagus nerve, interferes with our memory, how it influences our social interactions, and how it can affect our concentration. 

“By exploiting these gut-brain-behaviour relationships for novel, better-targeted therapeutic interventions, this study could revolutionise how schizophrenia and similar brain disorders are treated, significantly improving the lives of millions of people globally,” she said.

Welcoming the announcement, UCC President Professor John O’Halloran said

“We are delighted to have secured these prestigious, highly competitive research awards from HRB.  Securing our future through excellence in research and in supporting excellent researchers is the highest priority at UCC. I'm thrilled that we have secured these awards, which will enable us to accelerate our UCC Futures ambition to change the world and improve both our healthcare system and patients outcomes.”

UCC Vice President for Research & Innovation Professor John Cryan said: 

“I am delighted to congratulate Doctors Katona, O’Mulane and Matvienko-Sikar for this important recognition of their impactful research. I am particularly pleased to see this strong representation of female health researchers here in UCC for these highly sought after awards.  Collectively, their research is focused on finding effective solutions to some of the most pressing and urgent challenges that we face in healthcare both nationally and globally. These awards lay the foundation for these investigators to be key role models in Irish research moving forward and will support our UCC Futures research programme in areas ranging from sustainability; children; ageing & brain science; and food, microbiome & health.”

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