This week’s Spotlight on Research is with Dr Brendan Egan, Associate Professor of Sport and Exercise Physiology, DCU School of Health and Human Performance.
You work on muscle. Why is that?
“I am interested in muscle for a few reasons. One is for the performance of athletes, and I am researching how muscles adapt to exercise and forms of training and nutrition support. Another one, which affects more people, is that in generally as we age, we lose muscle mass and function like strength, and I want to see are there ways we can slow that down.”
How did you develop an interest in that?
“I grew up playing sport, I played Gaelic football for Sligo and I still play for St Vincent’s GAA club in Dublin. I studied sports science at the University of Limerick and I became interested in physiology, or the science of how the body works, and in nutrition, because what we eat affects how our muscles perform and stay healthy. I did a PhD with Dr Donal O’Gorman here in DCU on the molecular signatures of exercise in the muscles of young men, or how the biochemistry of muscle changed and adapted under different exercise and training regimes.”
OK, so what aspects are you looking at now?
“One of the things we are researching in my lab is the effects of a sports supplement called a ketone ester. It’s a really novel one for athletes as it can boost muscle performance, but we want to see could it be useful for helping to maintain healthy glucose levels for people who are at risk of or who have diabetes. We also want to see if ketone esters have potential for slowing muscle wasting with age.”
How do you look at that in the lab?
“We work with human volunteers, some take the supplement and some don’t, and we take blood and muscle samples and analyse them after the volunteers engage in various training and supplementation regimes.”
What about nutrition and muscle?
“That’s really important. My lab is part of a consortium called Food for Health Ireland, and we are looking at the effects of protein in the diet on muscle, particularly proteins from dairy, as well as other nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids.”
“Exercise is the most important factor that affects muscle health and performance, and we want to find out the most effective types. In elderly, we are finding that a combination of aerobic and resistance or strength training is optimal compared to either aerobic or resistance alone for improving things like leg strength and walking speed, and reducing belly fat.”
You recently had some interesting findings on caffeine…
“Yes, myself and my colleague Mark Evans looked at how caffeine affected repeated sprint performance in athletes. We found that athletes who did not regularly consume coffee got more of a performance boost from the caffeine than did the athletes who were habituated or used to caffeine.”
What do you wish people knew about muscle?
“How important it is, that muscle size, and particularly function, affects our health across our lifespans and that we can look after it. Eating a nutrient-rich diet that includes enough quality protein sources and doing a variety of exercises are good for your muscles and they play a huge role in our health, from really obvious things like being able to get up and move around to the more hidden activities like metabolising sugars and keeping them in check.”
How do you take a break from work?
“The GAA keeps me busy as I still play club football at senior level so there is a lot of training and matches for that. I also work as a performance nutritionist with various teams and team sport athletes. But what keeps me really busy at home is having two boys under the age of four!”