Profiles: health and cognition

Bringing together research strengths in healthcare science, medicine, dentistry, neural processes, psychology and wellbeing, the University’s focus upon health and cognition supports our commitment to create healthy communities both locally and around the world. Working with associated healthcare partners such as Derriford Hospital, the University is pioneering a ‘bench-to-bedside’ methodology in its focus upon translational and stratified medicine.

Profile: Professor Jackie Andrade

I love that challenge, and the satisfaction of using psychological theories to solve people’s problems in other fields. The study of the human mind is absolutely fascinating and at Plymouth we’re at the forefront of a truly interdisciplinary approach.

With a research portfolio spanning motivation and memory, craving and consciousness, imagination and anaesthesia, Professor of Psychology Jackie Andrade has forged an international reputation for applying cognitive theory to real-world problems across a range of scientific fields.

It’s an approach that has led to significant insight into the value of psychological intervention when it comes to developing self-help tools to aid the clinical treatment of those battling addiction.

“We have strong desires for those things that we can achieve in the short term, things we can visualise easily,” Jackie says. “But longer, more abstract goals are much harder to picture. How does someone begin to imagine what it feels like to be sober or healthy? We want to take what we have discovered about mental imagery and drug cravings, and use it to create strong desires for healthy behaviours like getting outdoors and exercising more.”

Through theory and lab-based research, Jackie has focused upon the role that short-term memory and imagery play in desires and cravings. Working with volunteers, including people who crave cigarettes, alcohol or chocolate, she conducts experiments to measure levels of craving and find simple tasks that can selectively block temptation. Briefly playing the computer game Tetris, making cubes from plasticine, or vividly imagining a pleasant scene all reduced unwanted cravings in her studies. And thanks to collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology, this research has directly informed the development of the OnTrack online treatment programme for alcohol problems.

The author of three books and more than 60 papers, and an elected fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Jackie also sits on the expert panel for the Royal College of Anaesthetists’ National Audit Project on accidental awareness in general anaesthesia. A leading authority on how anaesthetic drugs affect memory, her influence is helping shape future guidelines for anaesthetists.

Profile: Professor Oliver Hanemann

Together across the University, and in partnership with research colleagues within the NHS and research organisations across the world, the ITSMed research teams will make a real difference.

Find our more about Professor Hanemann's work

More people under the age of 40 die from brain tumours than from any other cancer. As arguably Europe’s leading neuroscientist investigating low-grade brain tumours, the work of Professor Oliver Hanemann, neurologist and Professor in Clinical Neurobiology, is having a profound impact on the potential for effective drug therapies for patients with this condition.

A unique strength of Oliver’s work is bench-to-bedside translational research, especially on low-grade brain tumours. By identifying and understanding the mechanism that makes a cell become cancerous, he and his colleagues explore ways in which to halt or reverse that mechanism.

They have identified new therapeutic targets and drug candidates for merlin-deficient tumours, employing cell biology techniques and unique in vitro models for brain tumours. A key innovation is fast track: testing new drugs in human primary cell cultures leading to innovative phase 0 trials leading to adaptive phase II/III trials.

“Our work will identify a drug-based therapy to help combat this condition,” Oliver says. “At present, the only treatment options are chemotherapy or invasive surgery. By testing drugs in such a fast track way we achieve the potential for making drug therapies available to patients faster.”
The calibre of the work was recognised when Plymouth was chosen as the next research centre of excellence for charity Brain Tumour Research in 2014, alongside an existing centre in Portsmouth and new centres at Barts/UCL and Imperial.

A member of the council for the British Neuro-Oncology Society, for whom he leads its research committee, Oliver is the Director of the Institute of Translational and Stratified Medicine (ITSMed) at Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, which works across traditional boundaries, and in particular with Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust.

Profile: Professor David Moles

Those of us who are in a position to do so have a responsibility to help those who are most vulnerable and in most need. It is extremely important to work for a university that explicitly promotes a strategy to transform people’s lives for the better.

“It has always seemed odd to me that it is dentists and patients who are in the best position to recognise what improvements need to be made to dental care, and yet so few academics treat them as equal partners in research. Our values at Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry are to actively involve patients and practitioners as partners to address the problems that really matter.”
The words of David Moles, Professor of Oral Health Services Research, are more than a nod to closer working between dentists, their patients and academics - they underpin the research ethos for dentistry at Plymouth University. In his role as Director of Dental Research and Postgraduate Education, David’s work focuses on reducing oral health inequalities and finding ways to improve oral healthcare services.

That body of work has produced insights into a range of issues, such as the steep socio-economic gradient in the numbers of both adults and children requiring hospitalisation for severe dental problems, and the incidence of oral and pharyngeal cancer in British South Asian communities linked to the use of smokeless tobacco.

David has also made a major impact in addressing the lack of dental research taking place in a primary care setting and the paucity of dentists equipped to undertake that research. This he’s done by establishing a National Institute for Health Research Academic Clinical Fellow training programme for primary care dentists; working with primary care dentists to help them set the agenda for dental research; and conducting studies in the dental primary care setting.

Profile: Associate Professor Bing Hu

I could have stayed in China and become very wealthy from a private practice. But I have come to Plymouth to build something new. For me, it’s the application of my research that’s key. I want to see how it can be used for the benefit of patients.

It’s one thing to be internationally respected in your field; it’s quite another to be world-renowned in two. That, however, is the reputation that heralds Bing Hu, Plymouth’s Associate Professor in Oral and Dental Health Research.

An orthodontist by training, Bing turned away from dental practice in China to pursue research into tooth development and tissue engineering. But a desire to expand his knowledge of the techniques of molecular biology led to him moving from Strasbourg to the University of Lausanne to specialise in hair follicle development and skin cancer.

“As a dentist the maximum number of people you can treat is maybe 200,” Bing says. “As a researcher and scientist with a clinical background, however, I can use my knowledge to develop new therapies which can help many more people. That is my inspiration.”

Joining the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry (PUPSMD) in 2013, the William J. Gies Award winner - the most prestigious international dental research prize - and author of numerous keynote articles in journals like Cell, has set about building a specialist team with the backing of a prestigious four-year Marie Curie Career Integration grant from the European Research Council. The funding will take forward his research in two key areas: oral cancer and stem cells, and craniofacial development and tissue engineering.

From reprogramming bone marrow cells to build new teeth, to finding ways to identify and eliminate the ‘satellite’ cells outside of the tumour boundary that can trigger secondary cancers, the work is as cutting edge as it is complementary with PUPSMD’s translational philosophy.