RMIT's Associate Professor Sarah Spencer has been named one of eight finalists in the inaugural Club Melbourne Fellowship for leading mid-career researchers.
The fellowship recognises excellence in research, innovation and leadership. It is designed to support high quality research projects and the next generation of Melbourne's research leaders.
It includes research funding of $10,000 to support attendance at international conferences to enable new research opportunities for their project.
The winner is also set to receive access to the Club Melbourne Ambassador Program network which covers expertise in diverse disciplines of medicine, science and environment, technology, engineering, business and education.
Associate Professor Sarah Spencer, Vice Chancellor's Senior Research Fellow in the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences, said the fellowship would allow her to promote her research in the field of ageing-associated brain inflammation and cognitive decline to an international audience and establish collaborations with the best in the world.
"As our population ages, many more Australians will require care for ageing-related diseases including cognitive dysfunction," she said.
"In addition, the current obesity epidemic means many of us will enter old age after suffering from overweight or obesity for at least some part of our lives.
"I have already been collaborating with Assistant Professor Ruth Barrientos from the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA, who has significant expertise in ageing and ageing-related diseases.
"Barrientos is one of the first to have established that ageing is associated with brain inflammation and that by targeting this we can reduce ageing-related cognitive decline.
"The fellowship would provide me with an opportunity to continue my collaboration with Barrientos and expand my research profile in perinatal programming of brain inflammation to examine the lifetime effects of obesity.
"So far preliminary data show obesity causes inflammation throughout the brain, including in regions associated with feeding and metabolism, and extending into those responsible for cognitive function.
"We hypothesise that this obesity-associated inflammation can prematurely age the brain, making us more vulnerable to cognitive dysfunction as we age," Spencer explained.
"To test the idea that obesity causes premature inflammatory ageing of the brain, we will examine obesity and ageing-related changes to the brain's immune cell profiles.
"Finally, we will correlate these with the degree of cognitive dysfunction and test the possibility of reversing this inflammation with a clinically relevant strategic targeting of the brain's immune cells.
To facilitate this approach, we have generated a unique transgenic rat that makes it possible to selectively and temporarily deplete microglia, one of the key immune cell populations in the brain, either from the whole brain or, using microinjection, from specific regions of the brain.
"At the same time we plan to examine a suite of circulating immune factors for their potential use as biomarkers to predict cognitive health in ageing humans.
"This will provide us with an opportunity to investigate microglia's role in ageing-related neuroinflammation and how it contributes to the development of cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's."
It is anticipated that the research will provide an avenue for researchers to develop new treatments for ageing-related cognitive disorders like dementia.
The winner of the Club Melbourne Fellowship will be announced on 15 August.
For more information, including fellowship finalist summaries, visit the website.
Story: Petra van Nieuwenhoven