The Dunedin Study

The Dunedin Study, arguably the world’s most successful longitudinal study, turns 45 this year. And as the study members reach midlife, Professor Richie Poulton, the study director, can see the work taking on an exciting new focus.

“After 45 years,” he says, “I feel like we’re on the crest of a new wave. We were originally a child health and development study, and then we moved to being a study of young adulthood and lifestyle… Now we’re starting to see the effect of ageing. We’re trying to link what we know from the past to set the stage for the future.”

The participants in the study – a thousand people born between April 1, 1972 and March 31, 1973 - will be forty five when the next phase of research kicks off. In this next phase, Richie and his team will be looking out for early signs of ageing, conducting kidney, hearing, vision and musculoskeletal examinations, and now, state of the art brain imaging.

“The idea that you have to study old people to learn about ageing is nonsense,” he explains, “in some ways the horse has bolted. What you want is to identify people who are ageing faster earlier so you can change things, put them on a better trajectory.”

The brain imaging project has already begun, with over 150 of the study’s 1,000 members having now been through the new 3T Siemens MRI scanner. The information from just this first 15% of members has been astounding. “The associations we had hypothesised we would see in the first 150 participants are actually there,” he says, “and they are there more strongly and more clearly than anyone could have believed or really even dreamed of.”

But the road to this new technology has been a long one, stretching back almost 15 years, and was only made possible by pooling the resources of Brain Research New Zealand, the Health Research Council and international funders like The National Institute of Aging in America. The global scientific community stepped up and made it happen because they needed the study to do it. “They don’t do it because they’re particularly generous or because they’ve got stacks of money laying around,” Richie stresses, “it’s because it helps them, and you can see that in their policy documents.

They do it because [the study] is something special, and they can get answers from it which they can apply to their own countries.” The value of the study has been shown time and again through national and international investments, with the NZ Health Research Council supplying over $6 million New Zealand dollars, the US National Institute of Health having ensured over $15.3 million New Zealand dollars, and the UK Medical Research Council ensuring $2.27 million New Zealand dollars for the study in the past five years alone.

Prime Minister Bill English is the latest in a long line up to recognise the value of the study, recently presenting Richie with the Prime Minister’s Science Prize for 2016. According to Richie, the prize amounted to a watershed moment for the study and recognised ‘’the efforts of so many people, over so many years’’. Perhaps, most importantly, it ‘’recognises the generosity and commitment of the study members themselves’’.

With almost 1,000 study members and a 95% retention rate, the Dunedin Study is in a unique position to be able to truly identify early ageing risk factors, not just for kiwis but for people across the developed world. “The people who are lost [from longitudinal studies] are not random,” he says. “The people that are lost, or hard to get back in, tend to be people for whom multiple difficulties aggregate and those are the people you really want to keep.”

It is the retention rate which has set the study apart from other longitudinal studies, and ensured that the information put out by the study can be generalised to other nations; it is why national and international politicians and researchers have come to take the study so seriously. “I start with the assumption that we’re going to get 100% of study members each time and then I work from there,” Richie says, “whereas other studies might be satisfied with 50%. It’s really the bloody-mindedness of it all. We’ll be at 80% and there’s still 15% or 20% of people out there we could get in, so we set the clock back to zero.” No one gets left behind; no one is given up on. It’s no wonder, then, that the study has managed to attract scientists from around the world to contribute.

Currently, collaborating experts come from as far afield as Duke University in the USA, King’s College London in the UK, as well as a handful of researchers based in Canada, Australia, and Singapore. These international researchers include the likes of Professors Terrie Moffitt, Avshalom Caspi, and Ahmad Hariri, some of the foremost experts in their fields. Then there are those researchers spread across most New Zealand universities, including BRNZ’s own Professors Peter Thorne, Suzanne Purdy and Valery Feigin based at the University of Auckland and AUT respectively.

While they may still be based in their namesake, The Dunedin Study has well and truly gone global. As it crests this new wave of enquiry, the study is building on 45 years of data and momentum. “The data that we hold already could show predictors of a person at age 45 being much older than their peer group, and if we find a predictor that is modifiable we can tell policy makers and practitioners ‘Focus on this, change this!’”. Given the significant financial investments, of not only the New Zealand government but also the UK and USA governments, it is clear that once the data is processed all eyes will be keenly focused on those findings.


This article was originally written for Brain Research New Zealand, and published in their 2016 Annual Report.

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