Multi-year CIHR grant supports McMaster study at the intersection of aging and infectious disease

A portrait of Dawn Bowdish

Dawn Bowdish, a professor in the Department of Medicine at McMaster, is receiving federal funding that will support studies at the intersection of aging and infectious disease.

McMaster University researchers have received $750,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) for a multi-year study into the connection between respiratory infections and brain aging.

The grant was announced by the Government of Canada.

“Dementia is a major reason that older adults move out of their homes into long-term care,” says Mark Holland, Canada’s Minister of Health. “The initiatives undertaken by CIHR and its partners will help us better understand the causes of dementia, how to prevent it, and how to treat it, thereby allowing greater numbers of older adults to age in place.”

For Dawn Bowdish, a professor of medicine at McMaster, the new funding will specifically support studies at the intersection of aging and infectious disease.

“For decades, it’s been known that older adults who are hospitalized with serious respiratory infections are at risk of long-term cognitive health consequences. In fact, just being up to date on your pneumococcal, influenza and shingles vaccines can drastically decrease your risk of dementia,” explains Bowdish.

“There is a clear connection between infections and cognitive decline, and this new research will focus on that connection.”

In particular, the new grant will allow Bowdish and her colleagues to explore exactly how infection-caused inflammation can impair learning, memory and immune cell function. They will also test anti-inflammation drugs as a possible prevention measure against cognitive decline.

The study, co-led by Chris Verschoor, an assistant professor in McMaster’s Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence, and Impact, features collaborators from across McMaster and from the University of Toronto. Together, the interdisciplinary group hopes to identify interventions that will reduce the incidence and burden of dementia.

“The long-term goal of this work is to develop therapeutics that prevent post-pneumonia cognitive decline,” says Bowdish, Executive Director of the Firestone Institute for Respiratory Health. “Until we have therapeutic options, keeping current on vaccinations is the only risk reduction strategy available.”

Bowdish, a member of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research (IIDR), says the new grant was made possible by key data generated by her past research. Last year, she was granted $50,000 through the IIDR’s annual seed funding initiative to develop a novel mouse model for studying post-pneumonia cognitive decline, which laid the foundation for this new project.

“Seed funding allows high-risk, high-reward projects to get off the ground,” she says. “It is so essential for helping outside-the-box research projects generate preliminary data that can often attract additional funding, like we’ve experienced here with the CIHR.”

The new project — along with the seed-funded work that preceded it — is just one of the many ways Bowdish is working at the crossroads of aging and infectious disease. She is also studying COVID-19 in long-term care, the aging gut microbiome, and immune responses to vaccination and infection in older adults.

She says these issue areas all warrant more attention in the future.

“Older adults and their health issues have historically been overlooked,” says Bowdish, whose research supports McMaster’s Global Nexus. “Many people feel that getting sick is just a part of getting old, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Older adults are tremendously important to our communities — they perform a lot of volunteer services, they’re often care-givers, they’re civically engaged, they’re knowledge-keepers, and they play important family roles. Research like this has the potential to give them more healthy, independent years of living, and that’s a really good thing for all of us.”

More McMaster studies net CIHR funds

Bowdish is one of three McMaster researchers to receive funding from the CIHR’s new Brain Health and Cognitive Impairment in Aging Initiative.

Maura Marcucci, an associate professor in the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence, and Impact, will lead a study into the mechanisms and prediction of perioperative brain injury and its long-term impacts.

Meanwhile, Marie Pigeyre, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, will conduct research into the metabolic and inflammatory pathways linking body fat to cognitive decline.

View the full list of funded projects here.

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