Grant for Growing Up in New Zealand researcher

24 July 2019
Dr Caroline Walker

Growing Up in New Zealand’s senior research fellow, Dr Caroline Walker, has won an Auckland Medical Research Foundation (AMRF) award.

Dr Walker presented her research examining DNA samples collected as part of the Growing Up in New Zealand study at the recent University of Auckland SUMMIT symposium.

She won the prize for the best presentation for her discovery of an association between maternal depression symptoms and child telomere length.

Telomeres are the caps on the of chromosomes which protect DNA from damage.  They shorten with age and the rate of shortening is dependent on genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors.

Longer telomeres are often associated with longer lives and a reduced likelihood of disease, while shorter telomeres are observed in those who experience stressful or adverse environments.

Dr Walker says her “surprising” research results found that children with mothers who experienced symptoms of depression had longer telomeres.

“We thought we would find the exact opposite – that maternal depression would be associated with shorter telomeres in children so this was a real surprise.

“We really need to do further research to find out whether this link is a developmental adaptation or an indirect consequence of environmental factors,” Dr Walker says.

The research is the first to examine telomere length in New Zealand children and provides an important and exciting opportunity to explore the long-term impact of early life stress on telomere length across the life span.

“This research also gives us the opportunity to identify factors which we could potentially change which could impact on telomere length,” Dr Walker says.  

Dr Walker plans to use the award grant to attend the world’s largest conference on genetics, the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Houston later in the year.