The research of the unit addresses critical questions concerning the impact of adverse early life events and lifestyle factors on chronic disease risk. Current NHMRC, ARC and DART funded research includes intergenerational transmission of obesity, the psychology of eating, mechanisms contributing to increased risk for diabetes, the effects of early-life stress and nutrition on adult disease and NPY based approaches to treating epilepsy.
Obesity: More than half of adults and up to a third of Australian children are considered overweight or obese. Obesity is an increasing problem and a major risk for diabetes and high blood pressure. We have developed models of voluntary high fat feeding in rat and mice, and current work explores why palatable, high fat diets are so appealing.
Intergenerational transmission of obesity The impact of parental obesity and early childhood events is a key focus - the impact of maternal obesity on offspring metabolic and cardiovascular risk, and options for intervention, including exercise and pharmacological approaches. Recent work investigating the role of paternal obesity on the health of offspring demonstrated that when rat fathers were fed a high fat diet to induce obesity and glucose intolerance, the resulting female offspring exhibited impaired glucose tolerance and insulin secretion as young adults (Nature, 2010).
Stress and adult disease: Evidence suggests that stressful experiences in early-life (including in utero) might affect diabetes and neurological disorders such as depression and anxiety, in terms of both their onset and its exacerbation. We are examining effects of early-life stress on neurogenesis and various endocrine abnormalities such as high cortisol that antagonize the actions of insulin. We are also looking at ameliorating techniques such as exercise and palatable diets.
Epigenetics: Most gene expression changes are associated with epigenetic changes and these can occur at multiple levels, including DNA methylation, histone and chromatin modifications, nucleosome remodelling and noncoding RNAs. We are investigating the role of epigenetic mechanisms in the ‘long-term memory’ of an adverse early-life experience, such as stress or parental obesity on the risk of developing disease as an adult.
Neuropharmacology of epilepsy: Work carried out in collaboration with Professor Terry O’Brien, Royal Melbourne Hospital, is examining the involvement of Neuropeptide Y (NPY) in a genetic model of absence–type epilepsy. NPY is known to regulate neuronal excitability, and animals that lack NPY are prone to seizures. Our data in epileptic animals suggest NPY is altered in critical brain regions important in generating seizure-like activity. These experiments have the potential to identify novel targets for anti-epileptic drugs.