The three-year study, funded through a $329,211 grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council, will explore the role of sensory neurons as a catalyst for overactivity in cases where there is a bladder obstruction.
About 20 per cent of people over the age of 40 suffer from bladder overactivity, with symptoms including an increased sense of urgency and frequency which often leads to incontinence.
The condition can be induced by bladder obstruction, as a result of prostate enlargement, as well as diabetes, neurological disorders and spinal cord injuries, however the exact mechanisms that lead to an overactive bladder are unknown.
Flinders senior lecturer in human physiology Dr Vladimir Zagorodnyuk (pictured), the study’s chief investigator, said the aim of the research was to determine whether overexcited sensory neurons were responsible for bladder overactivity in cases where it had been induced by an obstruction.
“There are sensors on both sides of the spinal cord which detect what’s happening in the bladder, whether it be pain, inflammation or fullness, and they report back to the brain through the spinal cord,” Dr Vladimir Zagorodnyuk said.
“But we think something’s happening to make those sensors overexcited so even when there’s a small distension in the bladder they will send exaggerated signals to the brain, making the person feel an urgency to rush to the toilet when they don’t need to,” he said.
“So we’ll be looking at whether the sensory neurons are in fact to blame for the overactivity, and what causes them to become overexcited in the first place.”
As there is no effective cure for the condition, Dr Zagorodnyuk said it was hoped the research would lead to pharmacological targets for new therapies and diagnostic tools.
“It’s such a common problem yet there is no effective treatment, largely because the underlying causes are not well understood,” he said.
“But if we can identify the cause then we can develop therapies to selectively target the problem and relieve the symptoms of this debilitating condition.”
Dr Zagorodnyuk said the search for a treatment would become even more urgent in the future as Australia’s population ages.
“Bladder overactivity is not life-threatening or painful but the social isolation caused by incontinence, fear of incontinence, urgency and frequency has a debilitating impact on quality of life.
“It’s already having a big impact on our health system – more than 30 per cent of patients are admitted to nursing homes because of urinary incontinence – and it’s only going to get worse as the population ages because it’s an age-related condition.”