Funds awarded for research in brain and mind sciences

11 November 2013

Children, teenagers, and older adults are the target of research set to commence in 2014 thanks to recent funding awarded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Australian Research Council (ARC) to researchers at the University of Sydney’s Brain & Mind Research Institute (BMRI).

Twins shed new light on disease progression in the early stages of mental illness

Professor Ian Hickie and Dr Daniel Hermens will work with a team of researchers from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, University of Queensland and Virginia Commonwealth University in the US to determine the extent to which mental health outcomes in young people can be predicted by neurobiological and genetic markers.

More than 18 years ago a study began tracking the real-time development of anxiety, mood, psychotic or substance misuse disorders in twins through adolescence and young adulthood. A sample of 2000 Australian twins and their siblings first enrolled in the study aged 12 and now more than 18 years later researchers can reassess the data collected to determine the relationships between mental distress in adolescence and the need for mental health care as a young adult.

This information is critical to planning effective early intervention studies for mental health, and helping to determine whether the studies should be focused on preventing deterioration in function and not just progression to any particular illness category.

Fish oil to treat depression in older at-risk adults

Associate Professor Sharon Naismith together with Professor Ian Hickie both from the BMRI, and Professor Helen Christensen from the Black Dog Institute will lead a trial examining whether omega-3 fatty acids or antidepressants prevent the onset of depression in a group of older community participants identified as being at risk of depression. The study will incorporate sophisticated brain scanning methods, as well as tests of brain functioning to determine acute brain changes, reduction in cognitive decline and prevention of depression over a one-year period.

Late life depression can now be identified in its early stages so researchers agree it is time to investigate a prevention.

In this study, the researchers believe they may be able to do more than prevent depression, but also reduce the associated cognitive decline.

Towards a treatment for a chronic disease affecting Aboriginal communities: Machado Joseph Disease (MJD)

Professor Tom Becker and Dr Jean Giacomotto from the BMRI are part of a team led by Dr Angela Laird from the ANZAC Institute at Concord Hospital. The team have received an NHMRC project grant to study the mechanisms causing Machado Joseph Disease (MJD) and investigate possible disease treatments.

MJD is a dominant hereditary neurodegenerative disease that involves the death of neurons within the brain and spinal cord leading to patient paralysis and death. The highest worldwide prevalence of MJD is found within Aboriginal communities of isolated regions of northeast Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

The team of researchers from the BMRI and ANZAC have developed the first transgenic zebrafish model of the disease. They will use the zebrafish model to shed new light on the disease, and test a selection of FDA approved drugs for their potential to alleviate the characteristics of the disease.

Improving human behaviour

Associate Professor Adam Guastella received a Clinical Career Development Fellowship from the NHMRC to test novel breakthrough interventions to improve social cognition and behaviour in humans.

With his fellowship, Guastella and his team will conduct studies to determine who is likely to respond to the intervention and then track the neurobiological changes against improvements in social behaviour, offering a personalised approach to intervention.

This research involves international collaboration, development of technical expertise and training opportunities for students and researchers. It has the potential to transform current treatments for social dysfunction in humans.

Developing frontier technology for preclinical brain imaging

Professor Steven Meikle leads an Australian Research Council project to develop new technology for brain imaging of an awake, freely moving mouse. The new technology will enable the molecular mechanisms underlying cognition, learning, and behaviour to be studied in the living mouse for the first time.

The team of researchers includes the BMRI's Dr Andre Kyme, Dr Anthonin Reilhac-Laborde from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, and Professor Simon Cherry from the University of California.

The team will investigate tomograph designs capable of continuously imaging a moving mouse, develop a PET detector with very high spatial resolution and focus, and develop a fully integrated motion tracking system.

Understanding how positive and negative events influence our behaviour

Dr Vincent Laurent received an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to study the psychological and neural processes influencing learning and decision-making. Understanding these processes is critical as we live in a complex world in which positive and negative events co-exist and interact to influence our behaviour.

Closing in on a life-changing intervention in Parkinson’s disease

Congratulations go to Dr Mac Shine who is expected to be conferred his PhD shortly. Mac has received a CJ Martin Fellowship to learn and apply new fMRI techniques to identify what brain changes are associated with Freezing of Gait (FOG) in Parkinson’s disease.

Mac will spend time at the University of Texas, Austin, a leading international centre for the analysis of functional MRI before returning to Sydney where he will apply these techniques.

Mac has been working in the BMRI Parkinson’s Disease Program, led by Associate Professor Simon Lewis. The team have recently published an EEG technique to predict FOG 5 seconds before it actually happens.

The team are looking to develop this technique so that it can be used in an individual patient to predict a freezing event in real time.

If successful, the team might be able to:

  1. warn a patient they are about to freeze
  2. give a patient a cue to keep walking, like a line projected on the floor just at the time when they need a cue
  3. perhaps get the EEG to communicate with implanted electrodes
  4. (DBS) to change the stimulation briefly thus averting a freezing episode.

Projects of worth that missed out due to funding shortages

These grant submissions were successful in attracting government funding, but sadly only 16.9% of projects received funding this year, compared with around 30% in previous years.

Around 1000 other projects were assessed as worthy of funding but could not be awarded a grant. Many of these project submissions were from mid-career researchers whose track records do not match those of more experienced researchers.

Five of the 1000 projects to narrowly miss out on funding were submitted by researchers at the BMRI.

The areas of investigation for these projects are:

  1. Melatonin intervention to correct circadian rhythms (the body’s 24-hour clock regulating activity) and treat mental illness.
  2. Predicting which young people who present in their adolescence or early adulthood with significant mental health difficulties will progress to major mental disorders and struggle with employment or education.
  3. Determining whether depressed mood and persistent fatigue following severe infection are the result of ongoing disruption of the body’s 24-hour (circadian) brain clock.
  4. Investigating the role of sleep in memory consolidation, degeneration of key brain regions or neurometabolites, inflammation and oxidative stress, and whether sleep contributes to cognitive decline.
  5. Understanding how nerve connections involving the dorsal striatum region of the brain contribute to how we learn both goal-directed and habitual actions, both of which relate to addiction, hallucination, and psychosis.
  6. Shedding new light on how the delta opioid receptor in the nucleus accumbens shell region of the brain influences decision-making in a complex changing environment. This is related to addiction, hallucination, and psychosis.
  7. Translating our understanding of goal-directed decision-making to establish new tools for measuring specific deficits in psychosis and developing future therapies targeting those deficits.