Dr Sarah Spencer investigates the relationship between an infant’s diet, brain development and ongoing health.
A Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow based in the School of Health Sciences and RMIT Health Innovations Research Institute, her work demonstrates how a poor diet in the early stages of life increases a child’s susceptibility to physical and mental health problems later in life.
Early in life, an infant’s brain starts to form connections that are crucial for long-term wellbeing.
Dr Spencer’s work reveals that too much fat in a baby’s diet can cause poor dietary habits and impair their response to stress in later life.
“My research indicates too much fat early on can disrupt the formation of important connections in the brain,” she says.
“These connections are prompted to form by a hormone called leptin.
“Leptin is secreted from fat and it’s normally a signal telling you that you’ve had enough to eat and to stop eating.
“Eating too much fat as a baby can change the amount of leptin in the body, which can disrupt the development of pathways in the brain.
“These are the pathways that control feeding and also control stress responses.”
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, more than three million Australian adults suffer from some form of anxiety while more than 13 million Australian adults are currently considered overweight – numbers Dr Spencer hopes to reduce in the future.
The 2013 NHMRC Australian Dietary Guidelines state that obesity now costs Australia $21 billion a year and has overtaken smoking as the greatest risk factor for disease and injury. If current trends continue, 83 per cent of men and 75 per cent of women will be obese in 10 years.
Dr Spencer is enjoying RMIT’s burgeoning research culture – one of the reasons she chose to move to the University.
“RMIT has brought in some really dynamic researchers with great reputations. This place is going to do really well in the future,” she says.
“For me it’s a great place to start my research career.”
The Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellowship is helping Dr Spencer further develop her research career.
“In addition to chasing grants I can pursue a lifetime research plan, which is very important for this kind of research,” she says.
“It means you can take on bigger questions that take longer to answer.
“There are lots of different elements that make my day-to-day job really fun.
“What I love is finding answers to questions that no one has found before. I think that’s really exciting.”
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