Take 10 with... Nicholas Gant

Dr Nicholas Gant from the Department of Exercise Sciences gives us 10 minutes of his time to discuss his research into fatigue, nutrition and brain function.

Dr Nicholas Gant, Department of Exercise Sciences
Dr Nicholas Gant, Department of Exercise Sciences

1.  Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Exercise Neurometabolism: Fuelling the brain to cope with extreme stress.

2.  Now explain it in everyday terms!

I’m interested in understanding why the brain is susceptible to fatigue during exercise and other physiological stresses. My group investigate methods to protect the brain using ‘brain foods’ and drugs with fatigue-reversing properties. It’s an unusual combination of metabolic physiology and advanced neuroscience techniques.

3.  Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

My day-to-day activities are extremely varied but always very stressful (for the research participants!). For example, we may have cyclists in the lab riding for three hours without breakfast to see if a psychoactive drug like caffeine can improve the availability of depleted neurotransmitters. We might be taking volunteers to the top of Mt. Everest by simulating the reduced oxygen at altitude to see if a dietary supplement can increase the duration they remain conscious. Or, we could be recreating conditions at the bottom of the ocean to test the physiological consequences of malfunctioning diving closed-circuit rebreathing equipment. We often dash between the lab at the Tāmaki Campus and the Centre for Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imagining at Grafton to see how the brain is responding to physical activity and foods.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

Being the first! I’ve led projects that uncovered some novel and bizarre functions of the nervous system by studying the brain during exercise. Did you know that the brain makes your muscles stronger the instant sugar touches your tongue (sugar takes 10 minutes to get to muscles via the blood stream)? And, did you know that cycling exercise with your legs (controlled by skeletal motor system), slows down your eye movements (controlled independently by the oculomotor system)?

5.  Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

I’m always surprised by the generosity of colleagues and their willingness to join me and try something completely unrelated to their usual research.

6.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

The biggest challenge is recruiting research participants, but moving to New Zealand 10 years ago helped in this regard. Kiwis are always keen to try extreme sports (science)!

7.  What questions have emerged as a result?

Always more questions than answers. These usually include: ‘That’s weird; I wonder why we evolved to respond like that?’.

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I hope that my work will help develop neuroprotective strategies that improve brain health and performance. For example, we’ve recently shown that a dietary supplement (Creatine Monohydrate) can increase neural energy stores and improve cognitive functions during recovery from mild traumatic brain injury (concussion).

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I collaborate with neuroscientists and clinicians, helped through membership of the University’s Centre for Brain Research. These scientists have complementary expertise in movement neuroscience, psychopharmacology, neuropsychology, and visual neuroscience. My interdisciplinary research wouldn’t be possible without great colleagues like Winston Byblow (Exercise Sciences) and Simon Mitchell (Anaesthesiology). It’s also rewarding to collaborate with industrial partners who offer a different perspective – often motivated to improve safety in their industry, or keen to make their fortune by finding the next superfood!

10.   What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Don’t’ lose sight of the big picture. Researchers can become absorbed in studying a complex phenomenon using reductionist paradigms that degrade the ecological validity of their work. Exercise Science is an applied science, so I always remind my team about the importance of solving real-life problems and generating translational research outcomes.