Dr Reichelt is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide Medical School.
Dr Reichelt shares insights into her research between obesity and diet and neurodegeneration and traumatic brain injury.
What motivated you to pursue this area of research? What did you study?
Poor nutrition in the form of high fat and sugar diets and obesity are major risk factors for neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. My research program revolves around the impact of nutrition and obesity on brain function. Diet is a modifiable lifestyle factor and food is a massive part of our lives - I find that the importance of what we eat and how it affects our brain health is an incredibly exciting field to be in. In a nutshell, my research seeks to understand how poor diets and obesity change cognitive abilities. By understanding what a poor diet does to brain function we can discover new interventions that not only reverse the effects of obesity on the brain, but also identify therapies that can augment brain function in neurodegenerative conditions.
Tell us about this new research project - what are you looking for and why?
An exciting part of my research program has been identifying that obesity can weaken the specialised delicate network of extracellular matrix structures that surrounds neurons – called perineuronal nets. These perineuronal nets form a protective barrier around neurons and can control how often nerve impulses are transmitted between adjoining neurons. If perineuronal nets become compromised, neurons are left vulnerable to injury. So, diet and body composition might be a critical mediating factor that dictates the immediate severity of a TBI on brain function and the long-term road to recovery. This new study will provide cutting-edge insight into the functional and molecular changes that happen to the extracellular matrix and neurons when both an obesogenic diet is consumed, and different severities of traumatic brain injuries – ranging from mild to moderate are sustained.
What do you hope your research will achieve and why?
Modifying the structure of perineuronal nets is an emerging neurosurgical therapy for spinal cord injuries - but this research is further ahead from what we know about the extracellular matrix in the injured brain. Overall, a major aim of my research program is the discovery of effective new approaches and applied therapies that will target the brain’s extracellular matrix to improve cognitive outcomes in brain injuries. I hope that my research will have dramatic positive impacts on people’s wellbeing by identifying effective treatments for TBI and predict recovery outcomes following a brain injury.
What are some of the key statistics regarding TBI and neurodegeneration in Australia?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting one 1 in 4 people over 85 in Australia, with rarer early onset cases often linked to genetic predispositions. Parkinson’s disease affects 1 in 350 Australians, and mainly affects people over 65, but can have an earlier onset. Following a TBI, you're likely at greatest risk of developing dementia later if you also have other risk factors. These can be genetic, but body composition may also play a key role as obesity causes a low level of inflammation throughout the body and brain – exacerbating neurodegeneration. Long-term studies indicate that obesity in mid-life increases the future risk for the development of dementia by 70-100%. Taken together, the combination of obesity and TBI creates the perfect storm for neurodegenerative diseases.
What is one thing that people do not understand about TBI that you would like to communicate to a broader audience or raise awareness of?
Most patients who sustain a mild TBI (e.g. a concussion) recover normal functionality within 3 months. However, a significant number of patients – between 15-30% - experience persistent dysfunction that can endure for years. I want to identify the biological factors that cause certain people to have bleaker prognoses for recovery, which will then allow tailored therapies for these at-risk individuals.