Projects at University College Cork (UCC) that will tackle health inequalities, prevent childhood obesity and explore how our gut can affect our memory, concentration and social interactions are set to receive funding from Health Research Board (HRB).

HRB is funding nine new projects in the Emerging Investigator Awards for Health (EIA) 2022, three of which are led by UCC researchers.

Dr Monica O’Mullane, from UCC’s Institute for Social Sciences in the 21st Century, said she had received funding to develop a Health Impact Assessment Implementation Model (HIA- IM) – a tool to tackle health inequalities.

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

“The HIA-IM is needed more than ever to ‘protect the health’ of public policy as we face challenges such as the global climate emergency. HIA-IM will help reduce the risk of policies that negatively impact health and wellbeing, with particular reference to marginalized groups in Ireland.”

Dr. Karen Matvienko Sikar, a lecturer in the UCC School of Public Health, has received funding to develop a standardized approach to measuring infant feeding outcomes to prevent childhood obesity.

“About one in five children suffer from obesity worldwide, making it a major public health challenge. What, how and when children are fed during the first year of life contribute to the risk of childhood obesity.

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

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

Mental Health

Dr Linda Katona, a neuroscientist based in UCC’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience and APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre, has also received funding for her research. Dr. Katona seeks to identify gut microbiome-sensitive brain biomarkers of cognitive impairment in schizophrenia.

“Ireland has one of the highest rates of mental illness in Europe, and schizophrenia is one of the leading psychiatric diagnoses nationally and the one with the greatest economic cost,” said Dr Katona .

Schizophrenic patients have difficulty remembering their past, are unable to have social interactions, and cannot retain information long enough to use it. Gut microbes affect our mood and motivation and interfere with our mental abilities.

“Recent research shows that information from our gut is transferred to our brain via the vagus nerve and that disruptions in communication between gut microbes, the vagus nerve and the brain often accompany the main symptoms of schizophrenia. This project will examine this and try 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 harnessing these gut-brain-behaviour relationships for new, better-targeted therapeutic interventions, this study could revolutionize the way schizophrenia and similar brain disorders are treated, dramatically improving the lives of millions of people around the world.” she declared.

Meanwhile, UCC President John O’Halloran said he was delighted to have won these prestigious and highly competitive research awards from HRB.

“Securing our future through excellence in research and the support of excellent researchers is the highest priority at UCC. I am delighted that we have been awarded these awards, which will enable us to accelerate our UCC Futures ambition of change the world and improve both our healthcare system and patient outcomes.