Research fellowships‌‌

As part of C2D2's key strategic commitment to supporting talented early career researchers in the chronic diseases and disorders area we have appointed four early career researchers to a new Research Fellowship scheme.

The scheme is intended to provide a stepping stone for these individuals towards becoming fully established and independent externally-funded research fellows.

The appointees will commence in April (2015) and will be funded for two years until the end of March 2017. They will pursue an independent programme of innovative research and, with the support of their two senior academic mentors, will apply for a prestigious externally-funded intermediate fellowship to continue their research career at York.

Deborah Thorpe

Neurodegenerative Disorders and the Handwriting of Medieval Scribes: Using the Past to Inform the Future

This interdisciplinary project creates a synthesis of evolutionary computation, handwriting analysis, and historical inquiry that will enhance the existing strengths of C2D2. The project has three central aims.

Firstly, to develop a digital technique for handwriting analysis that is applicable in the context of chronic diseases and disorders.

Secondly, to gain insight into the impact of the movement disorders caused by neurological conditions on the working lives of medieval scribes.

Thirdly, to demonstrate the value of collaborations between the humanities and sciences in a way that has not been previously demonstrated in the medical humanities.

A pilot study at C2D2 has already begun to identify the writing distortions caused by different neurological conditions in modern-day people. The new project combines digital image processing with historical handwriting analysis to detect the same features in medieval writing.

In the era before the printing presses, scribes were professionals who relied on their handwriting to earn a living. Thus, the handwriting data will inform a study of whether these distortions affected or prematurely ended their careers. This project is novel, challenging and truly interdisciplinary, forming an unconventional connection between the humanities and sciences that has never been attempted before.

Scott Cairney

Boosting Sleep Quality to Improve Mental Health

Although insomnia is a major risk factor for depression and other mental health illnesses, how sleep deprivation affects emotional regulation and psychological stability has received limited research.

In recent work, an auditory stimulation technique delivered to individuals in deep sleep enhanced a pattern of brain activity known as slow oscillation activity. Because slow oscillation activity is thought to support emotional cognition, such auditory stimulation may also overturn the affective regulatory impairments and fatigue induced by insomnia and, therefore, translate into a therapeutic intervention for individuals with mental health problems that co-occur with restricted sleep.

This project will be divided into two sections (A and B). Section A will examine the costs of partial and prolonged sleep deprivation for emotional regulation, as well as the importance of sleep slow oscillation activity for this process. This work will lay the foundations for section B, which will examine whether boosting slow oscillation activity with auditory stimulation in deep sleep can improve emotional regulation and alleviate fatigue after sleep deprivation has occurred.

Successful completion of this project will pave the way for longer-term translational research plans to examine the therapeutic benefits of slow oscillation stimulation in clinical populations.

Hannah Thompson

The consequence of rampant semantic retrieval on episodic memory in stroke aphasia

Memories and knowledge can be retrieved in an automatic fashion (from strong cues) or in a ‘controlled’ manner, to suit the situation (e.g., retrieving SALT with ROAD when it is icy, or SALT with KETCHUP for chips).

Chronic aphasia (i.e., impairment of language and conceptual processing) affects 250,000 stroke survivors in the UK, and this figure will rise as the population ages, despite recent advances in stroke medicine.

This project tests the hypothesis that damage to controlled retrieval in stroke aphasia elicits uncontrolled or 'rampant' automatic retrieval even when this is inappropriate. This might impair memory of an event, where there is retrieval of related information that was not part of the original experience (i.e. creating a false memory). 

A series of neuropsychological studies will determine whether damage to the control network produces disordered retrieval of events, using both word and picture tasks. We will see if these problems can be overcome by providing cues that reduce the need for controlled retrieval. We will also assess the neural mechanisms responsible: brain imaging may show stronger-than-normal activation in the automatic network. 

The control network damaged in these patients is thought to be involved in a wide range of tasks – however, the consequences for event memory have not been explored previously. This project is the first to assess episodic retrieval in stroke patients, and could lead to many new avenues of research in the future.

Siobhan O'Brien

Within-host evolution of the P. aeruginosa secretome in long-term chronic cystic fibrosis lung infections

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disorder where viscous mucus causes obstruction of the airways, predisposing patients to lifelong lung infections. The most common pathogen infecting the CF lung is Pseudomonas aeruginosa. P. aeruginosa is a harmful bacterium that produces a large arsenal of secreted molecules - its ‘secretome’ - that cause damage to host cells and tissues, e.g. enzymes and toxins that attack host cells, and scavenging molecules to steal host resources.

During long-term infections, P. aeruginosa populations rapidly evolve to adapt to life in the CF lung, often resulting in altered levels of these secreted molecules. Because so many of these secretions cause damage to the host, this rapid adaptation may have important consequences for virulence. However there is very little data available to test this exciting idea. In this project I will follow changes in P. aeruginosa’s secretome during longterm infections in a group of adult CF patients. I will test how the evolved changes in the secretome affect bacterial fitness and virulence and determine which secreted molecules are associated with worsening patient symptoms.

These important associations between bacterial secreted molecules and patient health could suggest potential ‘biomarkers’ enabling doctors to predict the likely harmfulness of infections.