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Hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) and immune crosstalk during periods of heavy training stress S&T4

  • School: School of Science and Technology
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2022
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2022

Project ID: S&T4

Individuals in physically demanding occupations (e.g. athletes, military personnel) routinely push to their body to its limit, which if unmanaged may lead to illness far beyond detrimental performance. During periods of intensified exercise it has been reported that there is a maladaptation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, causing a decrease in hormonal responses (e.g. cortisol) to exercise stress, which may in part alter the immunity of the individual in this state. Activation of the HPA axis induces an anti-inflammatory response of the immune system. Cortisol is known to increase the phagocytic potential of neutrophils and monocytes and to suppress pro-inflammatory mediators such as reactive oxygen species. Therefore, a dysfunctional HPA axis may lead, in part, to an impaired immune response during intensified exercise.

Activation of the HPA axis also induces dendritic cells (DCs); key specialize antigen presenting cells involved in linking the innate and adaptive immune responses. In rodents, a 5-week period of endurance training has been shown to increase DC number and stimulated cytokine production, with equivocal findings on the expression of co-stimulatory molecules. Despite their important role in immunity, limited research surrounding their function and number in response to exercise-training in humans exists. The link between training stress, the HPA axis and DCs has yet to be examined. It would be of interest to examine if this lowered HPA axis response following a period of intensified training is accompanied by an altered dendritic cell count and/or function, thus implicating this altered exercise induced immune response as a potential biomarker for the OTS.

This body of research will examine the interaction between hormones released in response to stress and the immune system during periods of intensified exercise. This work will determine the kinetics of circulating white blood cells in terms of numbers, activation and their ability to launch a defence against attack. Increased understanding of this crosstalk will support the development of interventions, such as nutritional or chronobiologic to reduce the impact of intensified exercise on our immunity.

Supervisory Team

Dr.  John Hough (Senior Lecturer in Exercise Physiology) has expertise in the hormonal and immunological responses to exercise. His research aim is to support and develop the optimisation of individual and group training regimes, utilising hormonal and immune markers. He has published in high-quality, peer-reviewed publications (h-index 8). His research has attracted ~£80,000 over the previous 5 years from a number of sources which include, but is not limited to, The Connolly Foundation and the Society of Endocrinology.

Dr. Jessica Piasecki (Lecturer in Exercise Physiology) has expertise in musculoskeletal health across the lifespan and examines how exercise may counteract the effects of ageing and inactivity. She is widely published in high-quality, peer-reviewed publications (h-index 13). Her research has attracted ~£30,000 over the previous 3 years.

Professor John Hunt (Head of NTU Strategic Research Theme) research has focused on developing breakthrough therapies, devices and technology to repair, replace, augment and in the future regenerate diseased, infected and damaged tissues in humans and other mammals using material interventions. He also holds a keen focus on diagnostics and health monitoring. His work is published widely in high-quality publications (h-index 49).

Dr. Stéphanie McArdle (Senior Research Fellow, John van Geest Cancer Research Centre) has expertise in the development of vaccines against cancers. She also holds an interest in the effect of exercise, mental health and the immune system and therefore provides additional expertise in this area for this body of research. Stéphanie has published in high-quality, peer reviewed publications (h-index 22).

School strategic research priority

This project aligns with our Sport, Health and Performance Enhancement (SHAPE) research centre specifically its aim to further develop and grow a research environment in sport and exercise sciences. Our research agenda and the quality of the team will help to achieve our goal of establishing a strong national and international reputation in the research area. It also aligns with the School’s strategic priorities, specifically connection of SST academics with MTIF capabilities through the addition of Prof. Hunt to the research team.

Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

For guidance and to make an application, please visit our studentship application page. The application deadline is Friday 14 January 2022.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2022 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Download our full applicant guidance notes for more information.

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