THE HERALD'S OPINION: Academic research an economic driver in the Hunter

John Hunter Hospital staff specialist and University of Newcastle academic Professor Nicholas Talley, a world-renown expert in the links between the brain and the gut. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers.
John Hunter Hospital staff specialist and University of Newcastle academic Professor Nicholas Talley, a world-renown expert in the links between the brain and the gut. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers.

WHETHER it is “butterflies in the stomach” or a “gut feeling”, all of us will regularly feel what we perceive to be an emotional response in the pit of the stomach. 

Those phrases – along with others such as “gut-wrenching” – passed into the language because they accurately describe what we feel. But until quite recently, conventional medicine had no real place for such notions. The stomach and the rest of the alimentary canal had but a single purpose: to keep us sustained.

Modern science, however, has revealed a complex set of interactions between our guts and our brains: not only does a troubled brain send signals to the gut – hence the heaving stomach at times of stress – but newer studies have indicated that a troubled gut can adversely affect the brain. 

One of the foremost researchers in this field is University of Newcastle academic, Laureate Professor Nicholas Talley, who is also a staff specialist and gastroenterologist at John Hunter Hospital. Professor Talley has enjoyed a distinguished career in the United States, and subsequently in Australia, having been an author on more than 1000 published academic papers, and having received more than $10 million in grant funding.

In his latest work, Professor Talley is investigating the role of environmental and dietary factors in gut problems including one of our modern mystery conditions, irritable bowel syndrome. While it had been understood that anxiety could cause stomach upsets, a 12-year study that Professor Talley was involved with showed that in many cases, it was inflammation of the gut driving the anxiety, and not the other way around. Experts also believe the gut may also be involved in conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

Professor Talley’s work is important from any angle, but it also shows that regional centres such as Newcastle have the ability to attract top-notch academics, and that Newcastle university and the Hunter Medical Research Institute are capable of competing with the big “sandstone” universities in the capital cities when it comes to attracting talent. This is especially important at a time when Newcastle is looking to build a new economic base away from its former foundations of steel and manufacturing. The more success that the Hunter can record academically, the better off the region will become. And that’s not just a gut feeling.

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