UC Scientists Seek Answers to Health Problems in the Military
UC researchers, funded by $3 million from the Department of Defense (DoD), are working to improve the performance of U.S. soldiers in training and combat, and even to make their lives healthier when they return home.
The UC scientists, in collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory Human Effectiveness Directorate (AFRL/HE) headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, will work to answer several questions:
Are medications that keep military personnel alert increasing the incidence of obesity and metabolic disorders? And can nutritional supplements replace these medications to optimize performance and aid recovery from the physical and mental strains of combat?
Can certain wartime exposures be linked to neurological disorders, specifically amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease?
The federally funded grants are two of only 39 projects nationwide to receive funds from the Defense Appropriations Act of 2005. A total of 497 proposals were submitted for this fiscal year.
“This funding is integral to the ongoing interdisciplinary research happening at the UC College of Medicine and the Academic Health Center,” said David Stern, MD, dean of the College of Medicine. “Strong partnerships with other organizations, such as the Air Force Research Laboratory, are key to opening new doors for research projects that will offer lasting health benefits.”
The first project, funded by a $2 million grant from the DoD and led by Stephen Benoit, PhD, assistant professor in UC’s Department of Psychiatry, will focus on a system in the brain called the arousal-stress axis.
Because military personnel are often placed in high-stress situations that require enhanced performance in the face of little or no sleep, they are often prescribed anti-fatigue medications. These medications act on the arousal-stress axis, keeping it active to keep military personnel awake and alert.
Recent research, however, has also shown strong links between this brain system and obesity and metabolic disease, Dr. Benoit pointed out.
Dr. Benoit and Department of Psychiatry colleagues Randy Seeley, PhD, and Debbie Clegg, PhD, all members of UC’s Obesity Research Center at the Genome Research Institute (GRI), will investigate whether anti-fatigue medications lead to increased incidence of obesity and metabolic disorders.
They will also study whether these anti-fatigue medications could be replaced with specially designed nutritional supplements, optimizing performance and aiding in recovery from physical and mental strain.
“We know that the part of the brain that keeps animals awake and alert is also responsible for triggering them to eat,” said Dr. Benoit. “It’s only natural to assume that by impacting one of these functions through medications or diet, you may influence the other.”
Dr. Benoit pointed out that even among the military, which have much higher levels of fitness than civilian populations, obesity and other metabolic problems are increasing.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 30 percent of U.S. adults 20 years of age and older—over 60 million people—are obese.
Capt. John M. McQuade, PhD, chief of the AFRL/HE Human Fatigue Neurosciences Team, is also involved with this study. McQuade, who completed his doctoral degree in neuroscience at UC, recognized the opportunity to bring UC and the AFRL together on a project.
“I’m excited about being able to bring my graduate school experience to something relevant and beneficial to the Air Force,” McQuade said.
The second project, led by David Millhorn, PhD, of UC’s GRI and Department of Genome Science, is funded by $1 million from the DoD, and is designed to identify biological biomarkers in the blood that could be used to diagnose ALS earlier and possibly identify individuals at higher risk for this disease.
The research will build on a previous study by co-investigator Ron Horner, PhD, director of UC’s Institute for the Study of Health, which found that Gulf War veterans had nearly twice the risk for developing ALS than those who were not deployed to the Gulf.
"This study is important for both military personnel and civilians in terms of treatment,” said Dr. Millhorn. “Earlier diagnosis makes possible earlier intervention with currently approved or experimental therapies, and earlier intervention may slow the progression of the disease."
Researchers at UC’s GRI, in collaboration with the AFRL/HE and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, will analyze human tissue samples from the same cohort of veterans involved in Dr. Horner’s study.
“This grant and our collaboration with the AFRL/HE give us access to a large number of ALS cases, which is a crucial requirement for a study aiming to improve the diagnosis and treatment of ALS,”said co-investigator Detlef Schumann, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Genome Science.
ALS is a fatal neurodegenerative disease of unknown cause that destroys the brain and spinal cord nerve cells that control muscle movement. As brain and spinal cord nerve cells die, muscles weaken and shrink, and rapid severe paralysis occurs. Although the FDA has approved one treatment for ALS, as yet there is no cure.
According to the ALS Association, about 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year. The incidence of ALS (two per 100,000 people) is five times higher than Huntington's disease and about equal to multiple sclerosis. It is estimated that as many as 30,000 Americans may have the disease at any given time.
“These awards are an excellent illustration of the value created when we combine the strengths of both academia and the military to move our scientific knowledge base forward,” said Dr. Hendrick Ruck, director of the AFRL/HE. Such joint efforts allow for more creativity and innovation and help us avoid duplication as we work to protect our fighters.
“We are very happy to be working in conjunction with the University of Cincinnati on these very important projects. In fact, as our research continues to advance, we hope to build upon our longstanding relationship with the University of Cincinnati Genome Research Institute.”