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Science Division’s Health Research Council Grants success

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Anne Louise Heath image
Associate Professor Anne-Louise Heath.

Being given the opportunity to seek answers to questions that are “relevant to mums, dads and whanau,” is a great advantage of a receiving a Health Research Council (HRC) Grant, says Human Nutrition’s Associate Professor Anne-Louise Heath.

Associate Professor Heath is one of five successful Science Division recipients in this year’s announcement of HRC Grants.

Associate Professor Heath and her Co-Primary Investigator, Professor Rachael Taylor of Dunedin’s School of Medicine, will lead The First Foods NZ study as the first major project to research the impact of food pouches on nutrition in an infant’s first year.

“Little is known about how and what infants are fed during their remarkable journey from consuming a 100 per cent milk diet at birth, to consuming the same foods as their family around their first birthday,” Associate Professor Heath says

The research will be the first large study of what Baby-Led-Weaning infants are eating, and will also record actual volumes of breast milk intake across the eight to nine month cohort.

Associate Professor Heath says the study will benefit many communities including health professionals who often want to give nutritional advice but are unable to when evidence-based research doesn’t exist.

“The public often turns to social media for information in the absence of research, which can be a real concern,” Associate Professor Heath says.

Five research projects across the Science Division were successful in securing HRC grants this year, receiving funding to the total of $5.16million.

Pro-Vice-Chancellor Sciences Professor Richard Barker says this is excellent recognition of the breadth and depth of research being undertaken across the Division.

“It’s also great to see researchers in the Division leveraging Otago’s strength in Health Sciences, ensuring the reach of the research extends into applications that impact on our communities.”

The five Science Division projects to receive HRC Grants are as follows:


Professor David Bilkey
A Novel Biomarker for Preclinical Drug Development in Schizophrenia
24 months, $ 489,282.20

Current drug-based therapy for schizophrenia, a disorder of brain function, is only moderately successful and has changed minimally over the past 40 years. This situation has arisen because of our limited understanding of the links between brain activity and psychological-level symptoms and how this knowledge is incorporated into our current preclinical models of the disorder. Here we aim to bridge this gap by examining a specific brain mechanism that appears to underlie the sequential encoding of information in the hippocampus. We propose that a disturbance in this mechanism underlies the disorganised thought symptoms observed in schizophrenia. This brain mechanism is ideally situated for use as a biomarker for preclinical drug testing and screening. We will, therefore, examine the responses to current known antipsychotics in preclinical models of schizophrenia, and then use our knowledge of this system to test novel drugs for their putative therapeutic potential in reorganising neural activity.


Associate Professor Anne-Louise Heath
Novel methods of infant feeding in New Zealand – cause for concern or optimism?
36 months, $ 1,185,359

Researchers, health professionals, and policy-makers know surprisingly little about how and what infants are fed during their journey from consuming a 100 per cent milk diet at birth, to consuming the same foods as their family around their first birthday. In fact, we don’t know what babies are eating in New Zealand even though there has been a revolution in infant feeding with domination of the market by baby food “pouches”, and massive popular uptake of Baby-Led Weaning (BLW), a virtually unstudied approach to introducing solids in which babies feed themselves 100 per cent finger foods - from the start. The First Foods NZ study will determine the impact of pouches and BLW on iron deficiency, growth, choking and dental health in an observational study of 625 Dunedin and Auckland infants. The results will enable the Ministry of Health, health professionals, and Plunket to advise parents on how to introduce solids safely.


Dr Anne-Marie Jackson
Tangaroa Ara Rau: Māori water safety programme for whānau
36 months, $ 1,192,263

Wai (water) is central to Māori culture, yet Māori have disproportionately high rates of drowning in Aotearoa. The need for a Māori water safety programme for whānau Māori is an urgent one. Here, Māori researchers will work alongside Tangaroa Ara Rau – a collective of national Māori water safety practitioners and researchers - and three Māori communities, utilising a kaupapa Māori approach to develop a Māori water safety programme. It will be tested, adapted and re-tested according to regional differences and preferences. We will also create a folio of evidence to inform advocacy for free water safety programmes for whānau. With a team of emerging to mid-career Māori researchers, this work will benefit communities and the Māori health research workforce. Furthermore, this research will contribute to Water Safety New Zealand's goal of zero drowning for Māori and all New Zealanders.


Professor Dr Neil McNaughton
Do hippocampus, insula and amygdala contribute to an anxiety syndrome biomarker?
36 months, $ 1,090,630

'Anxiety disorders' are the commonest mental disorders in New Zealand; but their diagnosis is still based on clinical symptom check lists not biological markers of specific causes. In our well-established neuropsychological theory, anxiety involves threat-approach controlled by specific brain structures in which hypersensitivity to input generates specific clinical syndromes. We have developed a specific non-invasive biomarker for threat-approach system activation in humans that shows hyperactivity in some clinical cases with source localisation to right inferior frontal regions. Our project will test this with fMRI and test for the involvement, predicted by our theory, of hippocampus, insula and amygdala. This should provide better understanding of the underlying causes of anxiety and ultimately provide targeted treatments; greatly improving treatment outcomes and cost-effectiveness.


Associate Professor Sandra Mandic
Built Environment and Active Transport to School: BEATS Natural Experiment
36 months, $ 1,197,487

Physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles among adolescents are global public health problems which increase the risk of obesity and reduced psychosocial health. Active transport to school is a convenient way to integrate physical activity into everyday life. Several Dunedin neighbourhoods have been undergoing on-road and off-road cycling infrastructure construction since 2014 and pedestrian-related infrastructure changes in 2018, affecting six out of 12 Dunedin secondary schools. The BEATS Natural Experiment study will examine the effects of these built environment changes on active transport to school in Dunedin adolescents, and their physical activity levels, as well as their perceptions of the school neighbourhood built environment. Data will be collected through schools using published research methods. Analysis will include 2014/2015 BEATS Study data (www.otago.ac.nz/beats), and contemporary ecological models for active transport that account for individual, social, environmental, and policy factors. Findings will inform planning of future built environment and active transport interventions.