Domhnall Macauley on a postgraduate study day at Trinity College, Dublin

Domhnall Macauley Bright eyed students wandered though the ancient cobbled courtyards of Trinity in the September sunshine- bursting with anticipation of the new term. “On Raglan Road on an Autumn Day….” The poet Patrick Kavanagh’s words came to mind- an echo of timeless repetition.  In contrast, we headed off to  the PhD and MD students of the medical faculty gathered in a new faculty building at St James.  And, If the postgraduate study day is a reflection of the medical research in Ireland, there is a new confidence and ambition in Irish medical research.  No nostalgia for a bygone era.  A future nurtured by the Health Research Board and Science Foundation Ireland.
Dermot Kelleher, head of the medical school, highlighted four key research areas in cancer, neuroscience, immunology and population health. Subsequent presentations and posters reflected a biomedical science trajectory aimed towards publication in high level  journals such as Nature and Cell.  Buried in the marshes mid PhD, it is easy to lose sight of the value of one’s work –  medical research does not advance with great strides but in incremental steps.   I am not sure that this generation of exceptional researchers really appreciated their own level of excellence.

Irish research was speaking a different language with presentations  fluent in SNPs  and sequencing,  cytokines and chemokines, concepts explained in the many variations of this new  dialect. Who could have guessed the meaning of “Voxel-based morphometry” when reading the title in an abstract- a means of analysing MRI to quantify the volume of different brain components.  MRI brought  a new phase  in psychological research and Elizabeth Kehoe, in her study,  showed how neurotic traits in healthy young women were associated with reduced grey matter. Admittedly it was a small study, of 20 normal volunteers.  But, as she said, it is in keeping with animal studies where long terms stress produces permanent brain changes.  Could long term stress and anxiety produce brain change in humans?

More prosaic yet stark were the data on single vehicle road collisions presented by Erica Donnelly-Swift.   The pattern was, perhaps, unsurprising with most fatalities in young male drivers, at nights and weekends and,  more often in rural areas.  But, many of these were on straight roads. Could these have been suicide?

Are you a doctor?  And, might your children be interested in studying medicine? It is very likely that communications skills training will be part of their education. Few of us would disagree about the importance of communication skills and its part in medical training. Marie Morris presented a series of posters looking at medical education and, as we chatted about her work, she told me that those most reluctant to take part in any assessment of communication skills tended to be male and those where English was not their first language.  But, also, those whose parents were doctors- I wonder why that might be?

Rats don’t usually make it into the BMJ but, from my interest in sport and exercise medicine, one piece of rat research caught my attention. These were sporty rats who were exercised 1 hour each day on a treadmill for 7 days. A single bout of exercise produced a significant improvement  in the rats memory (object recognition) but a week of forced exercise did not improve their working memory. Sadly, they conclude, exercise induced improvements in learning and memory may also be task specific.

Domhnall Macauley
is primary care editor, BMJ.