Examining muscle strength for healthier ageing: a trainee's story
Dr Stuart Maitland is an NIHR Clinical Research Fellow at Newcastle University. During his Newcastle BRC-funded PhD, which focussed on the loss of muscle strength and mass as we age, he was also carrying out his medical training, working in hospitals with older patients. He tells us about PhD and how this has helped him kick-start a career in ageing research.
Can you give us a summary of your research?
One important feature of growing older is that we all lose strength. Some people lose a lot more than others, and when this strength loss starts to affect your life, it’s called sarcopenia (sarco=muscle, penia=lack of). It’s an enormous issue in the UK that impacts our independence and wellbeing as we grow older, and it will affect up to 1 in 4 of us.
While the muscle is important for strength, equally important are the nerves that control that muscle. We’ve been measuring the nerve supply to muscle, and how it changes as we grow older.
What has your research shown, and what kind of changes has your research made possible for the healthcare of older people, and people suffering with loss of muscle strength?
We used a new technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. It’s essentially a very big magnet which safely activates areas of the brain that control your muscles. These messages travel down the spine to your muscle, and we can then measure that response with some electrodes attached to the skin.
We showed that there are two main pathways controlling muscles – your main fast and direct pathway (corticospinal), and a slower, backup pathway (reticulospinal). We showed that some people who had lost more strength than their peers tended to have weaker backup pathways
This is really interesting as people with sarcopenia are very challenging to rehabilitate. Understanding how the nerves function can help guide the right therapies to prevent or treat sarcopenia.
Did your study involve volunteers?
All our experiments were performed with local volunteers who had registered, including via VOICE research support group. We had a fantastic range of individuals taking part in experiments, aged 20-84. We were able to modify the task to ensure anyone who was eligible to take part could do so.
What have you gained from being an NIHR funded trainee?
My NIHR PhD has been a fantastic opportunity to develop my own skillset. As a junior doctor, I’ve been able to build training in specific skills and techniques that I otherwise wouldn’t get the opportunity to, including this experiment!
NIHR also has a fantastic community – it’s part of a national research group with excellent training and events. This means you can meet other researchers and hear about what everyone else is doing, and how it can be applied to your own work.
What are your next steps?
I’d love to continue working in neurophysiology, analysing how the nerves that control our bodies function, and what happens when they malfunction as we grow older.