New NHMRC Investigator Grants to safeguard the brain and heart

20 May 2020

Western Sydney University has been awarded two significant medical research grants worth over $2.1 million to further develop innovative strategies and approaches towards dementia prevention and treatment of atrial fibrillation, both common and devastating conditions that cut short lives across the world.

Associate Professor Genevieve Steiner, an NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellow from the University’s NICM Health Research Institute received funding of $1.5 million for her project, Teaching an old brain new tricks: optimising cognitive training through neuroplasticity (APP1195709).

The project aims to prevent decline in dementia as the leading cause of death of women in Australia, and the second-leading cause for all Australians, surpassing heart disease.

Associate Professor Steiner hopes this research enables older people to remain independent, stay functioning with diminished disability from dementia.

“Cognitive training is an early intervention and prevention strategy that offers hope for people with the early signs of dementia and shows promise in delaying deterioration, reducing dementia risk and its incidence,” says Associate Professor Steiner.

“The challenge, however, is to translate what we know about cognitive training to improve the everyday lives of Australians affected by the condition. This research program aims to optimise cognitive training by enhancing neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s in-built ability to adapt and rewire itself."

The second major grant of $606,000 from the NHMRC (APP1196262) is awarded to Dr Caleb Ferguson(opens in a new window) from the Western Sydney Nursing and Midwifery Research Centre (Western Sydney University School of Nursing and Midwifery and Western Sydney Local Health District) and the Translational Health Research Institute (THRI). Dr Ferguson will conduct a new trial into the world’s most common heart rhythm disorder, atrial fibrillation (AF), a condition where the heart beats irregularly. AF is a major risk factor for stroke, heart failure and dementia as well as the leading cause of cardiovascular hospitalisation in Australia.

The study, titled INFORM-AF: a randomised controlled trial to assess the efficacy of a digital education program for atrial fibrillation, will design, and evaluate a digital education intervention aimed to improve self care practices, quality of life and reduce potentially avoidable hospitalisations.

“INFORM-AF builds on previous successful research programs at the University that partner with patients, families, clinicians and key stakeholders in educational intervention development, and evaluation,” said Dr Ferguson.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research, Enterprise and International) Professor Deborah Sweeney commended the researchers on leading these important programs that will lead to improved quality of life for many Australians.

“These grants reflect Western Sydney University’s investment and commitment to improving health in our region and internationally, and shine a spotlight on the world-class expertise and translational health capabilities in our schools and research Institutes,” said Professor Sweeney.

NICM Health Research Institute Director, Professor Alan Bensoussan says it is an outstanding result for Associate Professor Steiner.

“This year, just 18 women were awarded a prestigious NHMRC Investigator Grant at Emerging Leadership 2, which had an 8.4% success rate,” he said.

“It is a fantastic achievement to receive a NHMRC grant and showcases our world-class researchers, the best and brightest, such as Associate Professor Steiner and how we are growing the knowledge economy and driving innovation and advances for some of our greatest health challenges, like dementia.”