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The Dunedin Study celebrates 50 years of global research impact

Friday, 1 April 2022

The internationally-renowned Dunedin Study celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, marking five decades of research impact around the world.

The first Dunedin baby to enter the University of Otago’s Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Study was born on 1 April 1972 and over the course of the following year a further 1,037 babies became Study members.

Since then, the cohort has been assessed regularly and, most recently, when Study members were aged 45, 94.1 per cent of living members participated, making it the highest follow-up rate for a study of this design and duration, in the world.

Professor Richie Poulton 2022 image
Professor Richie Poulton.

Director of the Dunedin Study Professor Richie Poulton first worked on the Study as an interviewer in 1985, and says in addition to generating globally relevant research, it has also become a sense of pride for the city of Dunedin.

“The local community has supported the Dunedin Study from the very start, and it exemplifies the town and gown relationship that underpins the uniqueness of Dunedin as a tertiary education city,” Professor Poulton says.

“At the beginning there was a view that the city, with its medical and dental schools and social science experts from many disciplines, was a perfect place for a lifecourse study to be nurtured. This still holds today, and due to the connected town and educational community, we have been able to draw on local as well as international expertise for the benefit of the Study and its outcomes.”

Professor Poulton, who has been Director since 2000, maintains the real heroes of the Study are the 1,037 Study members who have collectively given so much and for so long, in the hope of helping others.

Over the past 50 years, Dunedin Study researchers have published more than 1,400 peer-reviewed journal articles, books, and reports on many aspects of human health and development including, but not limited to, behavioural, oral health, and respiratory domains.

Some of these significant contributions were recently recognised as among the most important for psychology and social science in the last 100 years, as acknowledged in the Science News 2021 ‘Century of Science’.

Professor Terrie Moffitt image
Professor Terrie Moffitt.

Associate Director of the Dunedin Study Professor Terrie Moffitt is based at Duke University, and joined the Study to conduct research on antisocial behaviour when Study members were aged 13.

Professor Moffitt’s research, published in 1993, presented a developmental taxonomy of antisocial behaviour and is now the most cited and influential theory in the field of criminology.

“The Dunedin Study tracked offending and found that very few teenagers went on to be regulars in the adult criminal courts, but the majority of teens just tried lawbreaking once or twice and grew up to be law-abiding citizens,” Professor Moffitt says.

“These data were unique worldwide, and the Dunedin Study has by now influenced juvenile justice policy in most developed nations. We’ve won awards for improving the lives of children in conflict with the law around the world.”

Responding to a global gap in midlife aging research, the Dunedin Study has developed a geroscience research programme to understand how to extend our living years of disease-free life. Since 2015, this programme has generated around 40 papers on many aspects of the aging process, placing it at the forefront of the rapidly evolving geroscience field.

A significant output has been the development of a tool measuring an individual’s pace of whole-body aging, facilitated by the opportunity to research variations in the biological aging of the Study members at the same chronological age.

Through repeated assessments of 19 biomarkers and the generation of a globally unique dataset, a tool named DunedinPACE (Pace of Aging Computed in the Epigenome) has been developed, which can now be estimated from a single blood sample and is available as an open-access algorithm.

While having compelling implications across practice and policy, the Dunedin Study aims to remain future focused and help address changing societal concerns, which has included an emphasis on maximising the translational value of research findings.

As a former Chief Science Advisor to several branches of the New Zealand government, Professor Poulton says he has seen first-hand how the Study’s findings have informed practices and policy over different governments.

“I’m proud to be able to say hand-on-heart to our Study members that they have made a huge difference for others, and across multiple generations.”

Looking ahead the Study plans to examine the developmental origins of social cohesion, as indicated by people’s socially cohesive attitudes and behaviours. Recent research due to be published soon has identified several antecedents of vaccine acceptance behaviour in adults.

Professor Poulton says that reaching this milestone anniversary is testament to the value of the research produced by the Dunedin Study alongside the support and generosity displayed by the Study Members for 50 years.

“I have been extremely privileged to work with the Study members who are incredibly generous and very special people.

“I’ve never lost sight of the need for our research to make real peoples’ lives slightly better. It’s what drives me and the wider research team.”

For more information please contact:

Professor Richie Poulton
Director Dunedin Study
University of Otago

Guy Frederick
Communications Adviser Sciences
University of Otago