NDSU Researcher awarded R15 grant to measure muscle function in older adults

Ryan McGrath, assistant professor in the NDSU department of Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences, has been awarded an Academic Research Enhancement Award (R15) from the National Institutes of Health-National Institute on Aging. The $416,000 grant will support research into how muscle function can be better measured with handgrip in older adults, which is a predictor in determining other health issues that may be present.

Traditionally, scientists studying muscle function have utilized a somewhat dated handgrip dynamometer device, which measures the amount of force applied when a person squeezes it with their hand. The results of such a test are then extrapolated to determine overall muscle strength in the patient’s body. These tests may be used during recuperation from an injury or surgery, or as an indicator of age-related disease that may cause the involuntary loss of skeletal muscle strength.

While McGrath identifies handgrip dynamometers as powerful testing tools, they also have limitations. Mere strength measurements are incomplete indicators for a person’s muscle function and it’s difficult for medical providers to describe the exact and unique health issues for each patient. McGrath’s research will examine how to improve the method of assessing muscle function with handgrip dynamometers with new technologies that can collect other muscle function data in addition to maximal strength and provide a better overall picture of a person’s general health.

McGrath will also be adding an accelerometer to the handgrip dynamometers to provide information about how a person’s tremors during testing. He suspects the resulting data will be a better indicator of issues not captured by the maximal strength test alone.

“We are leveraging new technologies for creating methods that will give us a more holistic picture of a person’s muscle function,” he said. “In addition to strength, we should be able to examine additional aspects of muscle function for assessing a more complete set of metrics related to what’s going on as older adults use their muscular systems.” McGrath notes that the new device and method will be able to assess additional characteristics beyond strength including fatigability and explosive strength.

McGrath’s overall goal is to improve older adults’ health by detecting problems early. “We are looking for new ways to measure and assess muscle-related problems, and to determine how to help someone retain their independence for as long as possible. It’s the start of what could be an entirely new way to look at these age-related practices.”

NDSU Human Sciences and Education Dean Ron Werner-Wilson, PhD, noted how important McGrath’s research is given the growth of older adults in the nation’s population. “It is estimated that older adults will outnumber kids by 2035, which may seem like a long time from now, but in fact is something that we need to plan for today,” he said. “Research associated with muscle function will help us detect challenges at an earlier point in time.”

Werner-Wilson sees value in McGrath’s work to NDSU overall. “Ryan’s commitment to obtaining extramural support is commendable because it fits within the NDSU research mission and contributes to our status as an R1 university. Ryan’s R15 award is significant because the NIH only supports exemplary research endeavors which provide opportunities to expose students to research. It will strengthen the research environment in his department, our college, and the university. We are very proud of Ryan.”

NDSU’s undergraduate research environment is healthy and supportive of student research and McGrath expects to involve 20-30 students during the three-year span of his project. “I’ve found that undergraduate researchers at NDSU are motivated and great to work with,” he said. “But some don’t know how to get involved in research and thus may not even consider it as a career. This project will give many the opportunity to conduct real research with their peers, working with older adults while using state of the art equipment.”

NDSU Vice President for Research and Creative Activity Colleen Fitzgerald said how the award was valuable to both NDSU and to the people of North Dakota. "Dr. McGrath's award is an excellent example of how research at NDSU supports our land-grant mission in addressing issues that affect the well-being of North Dakota citizens and while doing so, continues to advance our strategic priority of increasing federal funding."

For additional information, see NIH project number 1R15AG072348-01A1, "GRip Assessment for Protocol Enhancements (GRAPE) in Older Adults.”

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