10 Sep 2020
Recent research indicates that alcohol use and alcohol-related harms are increasing among older adults. However, few studies have investigated the relationship between alcohol use and cognition in ageing populations. It is essential that research is conducted to examine the role of alcohol use in cognitive decline and dementia, as these issues represent some of the most significant challenges faced by older Australians. Nicholas Hoy, a Research Assistant at CHeBA, is contributing to a large-scale data harmonisation project led by Dr Louise Mewton, which will provide a clearer picture of the relationship between patterns of alcohol use and the risk of poor cognitive health in later life.
How did you get into researching the ageing brain?
Interestingly, it was actually through working here at CHeBA. I had previously worked for the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre and briefly for Curtin University. During that time, I was assisting with large-scale systematic literature reviews - one examining the efficacy of medicinal cannabis in treating various medical and psychiatric conditions and the other examining the relationship between amphetamine use and mental health outcomes. So my role here at CHeBA is the first time I’ve been involved in researching the ageing brain.
Did you experience a ‘defining moment’ which led you to this field?
I had been living in Canada for two years and CHeBA was one of the first research centres I interviewed with after returning to Australia. My aim was to gain more experience in research before beginning my PhD in 2021. I never expected to end up researching ageing populations specifically, but, since joining CHeBA, I have quickly realised the importance of this work. Probably the defining moment that led me to this field was meeting CHeBA’s Co-Director Professor Henry Brodaty and Dr Louise Mewton, as well as their fellow researchers, and then learning about their projects and the work that’s still needed to address the various challenges faced by older populations.
Do you have any personal interests or activities which are protective behaviours against cognitive decline?
Exercise, meditation and keeping my mind active through music and my work. I love hiking, particularly Alpine hiking in Canada and the United States, but also coastal hikes around Sydney and New South Wales.
I practice mindfulness meditation and have been playing various instruments since I was a child as well. Also, just by working in research, I keep my mind active and I’m constantly learning new things, which is important in protecting against cognitive decline.
What are you currently researching?
I am currently assisting with two research projects for Dr Louise Mewton. The first involves harmonising existing data from several large-scale research studies to examine patterns of alcohol use in older adults and how they relate to cognitive outcomes in later life. The second is a world-first randomised control trial investigating the efficacy of an internet-delivered intervention in reducing cognitive decline and risky alcohol consumption in older adults.
Why is your research important?
Alcohol use and alcohol-related harms are increasing among older Australians. I think it is really important to draw attention to this, and to identify the risks associated with alcohol use that are specific to this population, given that research to date has primarily focused on the relationship between alcohol use and the developing brain in adolescents and young adults. Further research is needed to examine the relationship between alcohol use and cognitive outcomes in later life. This is what the large-scale data harmonisation project, led by Dr Mewton, aims to address. Beyond this, it is also important to develop and implement effective, scalable treatments that can reduce alcohol consumption and the risk of cognitive decline among older adults. This is the aim of the internet-delivered intervention study, also led by Dr Mewton, which I am currently assisting with as well.
CHeBA is a world-leading research centre and provides so many opportunities to learn and develop your skills and experience as a researcher, which is extremely important to me at this early stage of my career. I love that it is a multidisciplinary environment; you get a unique insight and understanding of research by working at a centre like CHeBA because you can draw from the skills and expertise of people from such diverse academic backgrounds. This is especially appealing to me as my PhD project will be quite multidisciplinary.
What is the ultimate hope you have for your research?
I am aiming to begin my PhD at CHeBA next year, investigating transdiagnostic models of mental illness, as well as the genetic and neural structures that influence transdiagnostic risk of mental illness, across the lifespan. While traditional models of mental illness define disorders as distinct, episodic and categorical entities, research indicates that different disorders often co-occur within the same individual, reoccur across the lifespan and predict the onset of future additional disorders. In addition, efforts to identify genetic and neural biomarkers that are uniquely associated with particular disorders have been largely unsuccessful, despite decades of research. These findings indicate that traditional models of mental illness, which form the foundation of diagnostic practice in psychiatry and clinical psychology worldwide, fail to capture the nuanced and often varying structure of psychopathology across the lifespan.
I hope that my research - investigating an alternative transdiagnostic model of mental illness - will improve our understanding of the structure of psychopathology across the lifespan, aid the discovery of transdiagnostic biomarkers of mental illness and inform the development of age-specific preventative interventions that can be targeted across a range of different mental health issues.
Beyond this, I hope that my research will highlight the importance of examining psychopathology across all stages of a person’s life, particularly with respect to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. I think it is important to acknowledge that we each have a varying and lifelong relationship with our mental health, just as we do with our physical health.
This interview was undertaken during the COVID-19 self-isolation period. Nicholas Hoy found that exercise, meditation and regular video calls with family and friends maintained his mental health and kept him feeling socially connected while in self-isolation.
Nicholas Hoy is a Research Assistant at CHeBA and is working on two projects; the first examining trajectories of alcohol use in older adults and how this relates to cognitive outcomes in later life and the second a world-first randomised control trial exploring the efficacy of an online intervention to reduce risky alcohol consumption in older adults and protect against cognitive decline. Nicholas obtained a Bachelor of Psychology with First Class Honours from UNSW Sydney. He intends to pursue his PhD with CHeBA, investigating transdiagnostic models of mental illness, as well as the genetic and neural structures that influence transdiagnostic risk of mental illness, across the lifespan.