PhD student Zohra Kakall has always been fascinated by whole body physiology and the integration between the brain and other bodily systems.
This fascination drew her to the HRI High Blood Pressure Group led by Professor Paul Pilowsky, which focuses on the way that brain networks control airways, breathing and blood pressure.
High blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the key risk factors for heart disease and is also linked to blindness, kidney disease, stroke and early death. One in three Australians has high blood pressure, so understanding what causes it and what new steps can be developed to prevent and treat it is vital.
“The kind of research we do is 50% neuroscience and 50% cardiovascular. We don’t purely focus on the cardiovascular aspect. We focus more on how the brain affects this aspect, and how this is then related to high blood pressure,” Zohra says.
One of the emerging fields in cardiovascular neuroscience research is how the brain controls blood pressure in the periphery, and the role of inflammatory cells in the brain. Recently, Zohra attended a Neuroinflammation Workshop at the Neuroscience School of Advanced Studies in Tuscany, Italy, where presenters included experts in the field from Harvard University, USA and the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel.
“It was invaluable to understand other scientists’ applications in the lab, the skills they use and the way they think. That thought process is so different from scientist to scientist that it’s a distinguishing factor,” says Zohra.
Another valuable take-away was how the latest developments in neuroscience techniques and experiments can be applied in cardiovascular research. Armed with this knowledge, the High Blood Pressure Group has acquired new tools, including compounds that selectively destroy inflammatory cells in the brain, and adapted some of its experiments to help it stay at the forefront of medical research.
As part of this research trip, Zohra visited David Paterson's group at Oxford University, UK, who collaborate with and receive antibodies from the High Blood Pressure Group. She also visited groups interested in studying the cause of neurogenic hypertension at both Bristol University and University College London.
It was an enlightening experience. According to Zohra, “How you use the tools that you have as a scientist and as a researcher is key. If you ask the right questions, with just a small amount of resources you could be solving the most important problems.
“Science, if you do it right, is incredible.”
The latest research
A known risk factor for developing high blood pressure is obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), which occurs when breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep due to the walls of the throat coming together. Zohra is currently investigating the impact of OSA on people with obesity, and how this causes elevation in brain activity that ultimately leads to hypertension – essentially, the link between obesity and high blood pressure.
This follows a study in which Zohra identified a neurotransmitter that, when blocked, could protect specific brain cells from becoming overactive in an experimental model of OSA. Restricting these neurons from becoming overactive can assist in preventing the development of neurogenic hypertension. With further development, a new drug that can block the neurotransmitter and stop hypertension before it develops could be in sight.