Neurosciences and mental health research news

Theme co-leaders, Bernard Balleine and Anthony Harris

Bernard Balleine

Bernard Balleine is a Professor in the Brain & Mind Research Institute at Sydney Medical School. Professor Balleine's research aims to understand the neural bases of learning and motivational processes that control volitional or goal-directed action. This research helps us to understand the role cognitive and emotional systems play in executive functions and decision-making. Currently his research team focuses on:

  1. the role of the prefrontal cortex-basal ganglia network in changes in goal-directed learning that emerge as a consequence of neurodegeneration, focal brain damage and addiction;
  2. the role of the amygdala, its brain stem afferents and its efferents on ventral striatum, insular cortex and midbrain dopamine neurons in regulating the emotional processes through which the reward value of events is encoded; and
  3. the role of the thalamo-striatal projection and related cortical connections involving somatosensory cortex in the integration of cognitive and emotional processes necessary for normal decision-making.
Anthony Harris

Anthony Harris is an Associate Professor in the Discipline of Psychiatry, Sydney Medical School at the University of Sydney. Associate Professor Harris is a senior staff specialist psychiatrist for the Prevention Early Intervention and Recovery Service in the Western Sydney Area Mental Health Service and the Director of the Clinical Disorders Unit at the Brain Dynamics Centre, Westmead Hospital.

After completing training as a psychiatrist in Sydney, Associate Professor Harris worked as a consultant in the area of psychogeriatrics in the United Kingdom before completing research work at the Zentralinstitut für Seelische Gesundheit in Mannheim, Germany in the field of psychophysiology. He specialises in the field of early intervention in psychosis and his principle research interests centre on the psychophysiology, neuroimaging and treatment of psychosis and schizophrenia.

Associate Professor Harris is presently on the Management Committee of the Schizophrenia Fellowship of New South Wales and a member of the Board of the Research Trust Fund of the Fellowship.

Better outcomes for mental health care

Professor Ian Hickie, Executive Director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute, was included in the Australian Financial Review's list of the ten most influential Australians. He was named as a 'cultural power' along with the likes of Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall.

As a long-term campaigner for improved mental health services, particularly in young people, Professor Hickie has led a national campaign to recognise mental health as a national problem requiring urgent attention. "Mental health has been neglected for decades simply because most people don't think it is a real health issue," he says. He successfully persuaded the Federal Government to allocate $1.9 billion to deal with the problem.

Understanding mood disorders and depression

Professor Gin Malhi is Head of the Discipline of Psychological Medicine at the University of Sydney. He is also Executive Director of the Advanced Research Clinical High-field Imaging (ARCHI) facility at the School’s Northern Clinical School, where he leads the newly formed CADE Clinic research unit. He has a longstanding interest in mood disorders particularly bipolar disorder and depression, and uses clinical and neuropsychological assessments in conjunction with neurobiological probes, to investigate the neural basis of affective disorders. His research has been significant in helping clinicians better diagnose complex mental health conditions and using the latest neuroimaging technology. Professor Malhi and his team have recently been able to identify neural markers of bipolar disorder.

Helping children with neuromuscular disorders

Professor North’s laboratory research interests focus on the molecular basis of inherited muscle disorders – particularly muscular dystrophies and congenital myopathies – as well as genes which influence normal skeletal muscle function and elite athletic performance.

Neuromuscular disorders are major causes of ongoing disability in childhood. They cause progressive and disabling weakness and often an affected child will lose the ability to walk. In children whose breathing and swallowing muscles are affected respiratory failure and early death may result. While some of these disorders are treatable, for many children there is currently no cure. Most neuromuscular disorders of childhood are genetic and more than one person in a family may be affected, e.g., the muscular dystrophies are a group of hereditary muscle diseases which can result in severe and often-progressive muscle weakness.

At the Children’s Hospital, Professor North has established the Clinical Neurogenetics Service which currently cares for more than 1,500 patients and their families. Professor North’s clinical research focuses on clinical trials of therapies for muscular dystrophy as well as the development of interventions for children with learning disabilities.

Professor North is Douglas Burrows Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Head of the Discipline of Paediatrics and Child Health and Associate Dean. She also heads the hospital’s Neurogenetics Research Unit and is Deputy Head of the Institute for Neuromuscular Research.

Neuroscience and Mental Health Theme Development Day

The Neuroscience and Mental Health Development Day was held on September 30, 2011. The day brought together researchers from faculties and schools involved in investigating the workings of the brain and the nervous system. It gave researchers, students and educational leaders an opportunity to:

  • discuss cross-disciplinary programs;
  • foster cross disciplinary and multidisciplinary research and research training;
  • facilitate access to resources within the university for research and teaching;
  • help attract funding support for researchers and educators in neuroscience and mental health.

A copy of the day's programme and proceedings can be downloaded here (PDF - 686k).

If you would like further information about the day's proceedings, including copies of presentations, please