26 May 2020
Twin research provides important clues to understanding cognitive decline in older adults and assists in the development of public health intervention strategies. Dr Vibeke Catts, Study Coordinator of CHeBA’s Older Australian Twins Study hopes to identify genetic changes between twins to identify the biological pathways for diseases such as dementia. This particular longitudinal study has brought together geneticists and researchers in neurospsychiatry of the elderly to examine key issues in cognitive ageing and dementia.
How did you get into researching the ageing brain?
My former husband is a psychiatrist and researcher in the field of schizophrenia and played a big part in my decision to go to university seeking to do medical research. After finishing my degree, he and I did research together for several years in the field of mental health, specifically schizophrenia, before I joined the team at CHeBA.
Did you experience a ‘defining moment’ which led you to this field?
I have observed first-hand the impact of brain disorders on friends and family, and the effects on their family lives. Disorders of the brain are some of the most challenging disabilities and health issues to overcome. When one does not have a sound mind it becomes difficult to troubleshoot life’s problems. The process of assisting a loved one is challenging and achieving total recovery and effective management of such conditions is quite difficult. Often with brain disorders, change must come from within. It is not like you can give a pacemaker, an artificial limb or another device to the affected person to help the management or recovery process. For an individual to reach an internal change in mindset is a trying ordeal but is so important for quality of life.
My mother had a stroke at the age of 62. Observing from afar the impact it had on her and on my father’s quality of life as her full-time carer was quite profound and was a turning point for myself as it motivated me to become fitter, lose a few excess kilos and implement strategies to prevent the possibility of suffering a future stroke.
Do you have any personal interests or activities which are protective behaviours against cognitive decline?
Fitness, keeping my weight in check, and making healthy food choices are all important to me. I limit my alcohol intake, stay socially engaged whilst using my mind both at work and in my personal life. I enjoy reading, cycling and trail running in national parks. Trail running is a lot of fun; I find you are required to have a significant level of focus and watch where you are going - unlike pounding the pavement which becomes too monotonous for me.
What are you currently researching?
I am currently coordinating the Older Australian Twins Study, analysing and reporting the data we are collecting. What is interesting and particularly useful about twin research is that you have identical twins sharing all their identical genetic coding and non-identical twins who share 50% of their genetic coding like other siblings. By quantifying how often an outcome (like dementia) occurs in both twins in identical versus non-identical twin pairs, we can estimate the contribution of genetics to this outcome as well as estimate the contribution of environment and lifestyle to an outcome. We can also look at differences between the genders and for example explore the effect of societal and parental attitudes to boy’s and girl’s education on their future social and health outcomes.
Why is your research important?
Twin research gives us clues for important public health interventions and strategies to prevent disability into older age. With a larger sample of twins we may be able to pinpoint a particular genetic change that ultimately leads to increased health problems in older age. Identifying such genetic changes can help identify the biological pathways for illnesses such as heart disease or dementia. For this, we need a bigger sample than what the Older Australian Twins Study provides, which is why we collaborate with people internationally and pool our data together as well.
What do you love about working at CHeBA?
I love working at CHeBA because I have beautiful and kind colleagues. I have always liked to work in a centre or institute where everyone works for a common goal, and the staff are on the same page, with limited politics and not competing internally for resources and CHeBA provides this. CHeBA has a wonderful public outreach which is a nice aspect because not only do we interact with our lovely study participants, but we are also reaching out to the broader community. My role in the Older Australian Twins Study takes advantage of my organisational ability and we are moving towards a stage where we have more contact with participants which is terrific. Recently, I am taking great pleasure in conversations with participants in response to the ‘Thinking of You’ card we sent out during COVID-19. I can see that my job has a real potential to have an impact on outcomes in the community within my own lifetime. This is different to my previous work at the laboratory bench, where it could take decades to translate observations to better health outcomes.
I can see that my job has a real potential to have an impact on outcomes in the community within my own lifetime.
What is the ultimate hope you have for your research?
To identify strategies that are readily accessible to a broad section of the population, which will ultimately result in people having a better quality of life. We know we cannot live forever, but I strongly believe that good health throughout life, and the lifestyle behaviours that go with that, are key to a high quality of life.
This interview was undertaken during the COVID-19 self-isolation period. During this time Dr Catts found that meeting with her book club via Zoom rather than at local restaurants gave new insights to her friends’ lives, like e-meeting their husbands and pets and learning about their favourite pre-dinner drink and home cooked meals. She found it has been a lovely opportunity to see different aspects of their lives and connect socially in a new way.
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Dr Vibeke Catts is the Study Coordinator of the Older Australian Twins Study which aims to determine the genetic and environmental influences on the ageing process, and the extent to which these determinants interact. Prior to joining CHeBA, Dr Catts held a Post-Doctoral appointment at Neuroscience Research Australia, where she researched molecular and cellular pathology in blood and brain from individuals with schizophrenia. Dr Catts also investigates antipsychotic drugs as a potential treatment for glioblastoma in collaboration with Associate Professor Lutze-Mann, School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, UNSW Sydney.