As a postdoctoral trainee, kinesiology professor Kevin Shoemaker made the conscious decision to improve our understanding of the autonomic nervous system, which operates subconsciously, helps determine overall health and controls such vital bodily functions as heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration and digestion.
“We’re interested in how the autonomic nervous system communicates with the cardiovascular system to regulate blood pressure and the distribution of blood flow,” he says.
Recently named Canada Research Chair in Integrative Physiology and Exercise, Shoemaker is keenly interested in how physical fitness and hypertension affect such physiological processes. This knowledge can play a particularly significant role in improving the health and well-being of at-risk and aging populations.
He and his team examine regions of the brain that influence the cardiovascular system, and how nerve signals from muscles and other sites in the body affect the brain’s integrity. They also aim to establish how age and vascular disease interfere with normal brain structure and function.
In the process, Shoemaker stresses the importance of exercise as a stimulus for protecting vascular and nervous system tissues. “Due to its role in stroke, heart attacks and exercise limitations, vascular disease remains the greatest economic and physical burden in our society,” he says.
By examining small blood vessel stiffness in humans, he also hopes to find early warning signs of vascular disease and opportunities for early responses to treatment.
Shoemaker pioneered the use of ultrasound to measure blood flow in muscle during exercise, which benefits a wide range of people, from high-end athletes monitoring muscle performance to patients under bed rest protocols. Similar advances in technology have provided novel manners of studying the body and integrating measurements related to physiological, cardiac and neural signals – all in real-time.
“Imaging technologies have led us to the point we are at now, and new developments will allow us to begin to look at the small vessels in the brain,” he says.
The applied aspects of Shoemaker’s research carry him around the world, including to Finland, where he is part of a $4-million, CIHR-funded study led by Rob Petrella that looks for early markers of vascular disease in people at risk for diabetes.
In further studies related to cardiovascular disease and the autonomic nervous system, Shoemaker examines Croatian free divers to see if these athletes may in fact face a higher risk of cardiovascular disease as they age.
Not limiting his wide-ranging studies to this planet, Shoemaker also works with various space agencies around the world to understand the effects of microgravity and physical deconditioning in space. “Astronauts must exercise between two and three hours daily to minimize the effects of space on cardiovascular status,” he says, “and we use bed rest on Earth as an analogue to understand the effects of microgravity on the autonomic nervous system and blood vessels.”
It turns out Shoemaker’s interests in the cardiovascular system and in neurophysiology as a student presciently parallel the manner in which he pursued his field of research: “I just followed my heart and my mind,” he says.