Research

FINDING A CURE

We’re working hard to raise money to fund mental illness research.

Medical research provides a massive step forward in the search to find a cure for mental illness. Awareness is important, but it is not enough. We need direct and meaningful action if we are going to find a cure. Unfortunately research into mental health is desperately underfunded, so we are working hard to raise money and close the funding gap. Medical knowledge about mental illness is where asthma, cancer, diabetes and most other chronic illnesses were 60 years ago.

Professor Brian Dean
Head Biological Psychiatry & Mental Health

Dr Andrea Gogos, Researcher
Biological Psychiatry & Mental Health 

Associate Professor Paul Gooley and Dr Daniel Scott in the nuclear resonance spectroscopy cave.

 

Dr Jess Nithiantharajah

 

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness involving mood fluctuations between extreme highs (mania) and lows (depression). Some people with bipolar disorder also experience psychosis and become unable to discern what is real.

  • On average, it takes ten years and four doctors before an accurate diagnosis is reached
  • One in 50 adult Australians are diagnosed with bipolar disorder each year
  • The disorder usually begins to manifest in the 20s, a key decade of life for establishing a solid future

Bipolar disorder research

Studying donated human post-mortem brain tissue together with preclinical research, the Florey is working to understand the biochemical changes in the brain that may give rise to bipolar disorder.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a brain illness that affects the way a person thinks, feels and acts. Schizophrenia is characterised by two or more of the following symptoms: Delusions, hallucinations, disorganised speech, disorganised or catatonic behaviour or negative lifestyle symptoms such as social withdrawal, reduced motivation/interest, inappropriate responses. One of the most debilitating symptoms is reduced cognitive function.

  • Schizophrenia affects approximately one in 100 people worldwide and has a significant genetic component
  • It affects men and women equally, with the onset of symptoms usually appearing in males between 18 and 25 years and in females between 25 years and the mid-30s (with a second peak at the onset of menopause).
  • Schizophrenia is a neurodevelopmental disorder, and subtle symptoms may begin many years earlier. While it's known that it can be triggered in vulnerable people by environmental factors, what these triggers are and why they affect certain individuals is still unknown     

Schizophrenia research

The Florey’s research looks at understanding molecular changes in the brains of people with schizophrenia as a step toward identifying potential new drug treatment targets. Our scientists are exploring the link between sex steroid hormones and schizophrenia. Estrogen and progesterone are thought to be protective.

Zinc imbalance in the brain is another exciting avenue of research, with altered zinc regulation in the brains of people with schizophrenia. Florey scientists have developed a novel model of zinc regulation which may lead to new drug development leads.

 

Imaging and schizophrenia

Dr Daniel Scott is using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to look for ways to activate the neurotensin-1 receptor in people with schizophrenia.

We believe this will be of clinical value because untreated patients with schizophrenia have lower neurotensin levels in their spinal fluid, and the lower the level, the worse their symptoms. After standard antipsychotic treatment, neurotensin levels increase in patients’ brains.

Anxiety and Depression

There are a number of types of depression. The most common type is major depression, where symptoms of intense sadness and lack of interest in regular activities (as well as other symptoms) persist for more than two weeks. Melancholia is depression typified by the slowing down of physical movements, feeling empty or guilty and difficulty in sleeping. Psychotic depression is when a person loses touch with reality as part of their depressive disorder, experiencing hallucinations or delusions.

Adolescents are the most vulnerable population for anxiety disorders. Anxiety onset peaks in adolescence, and adolescent-onset anxiety leads to more severe symptoms and poorer outcomes (e.g. suicide) than adulthood-onset anxiety. Importantly, adolescents are more resistant to therapy and are more prone to relapse after therapy compared to adults.

Anxiety and Depression Research

Until recently, adolescents have been neglected as a research target, at least partly due to the absence of laboratory models to study how and why adolescents are particularly vulnerable to anxiety disorders compared to other ages. Florey scientists are conducting both pre-clinical and human studies to compare adolescent and adult brain structure and chemistry and using this information to develop new treatment interventions in adolescent anxiety.

In another study, data suggests changes in the frontal cortex are causing the cognitive deficits experienced by people with depression. This is important because these cognitive deficits can change perception of our environment and this could be critical in the onset of depression. We know that drugs that target components of the pathways we have identified can marginally improve the symptoms of depression and once we understand the mechanisms by which the overall balance of biochemical pathways occurs in depression we predict we will be able to suggest new treatment strategies.

Re-connecting the brain in mental illness

Schizophrenia, depression and autism spectrum disorders, are the biggest health issues confronting young people - impacting on their education and their futures as engaged citizens. Approximately 1 in 100 people in Australia have or will develop schizophrenia, making this disorder one of the top 10 causes of disability in developed countries worldwide. In Australia, the prevalence of autism is estimated at 1 in 160. Depression has high lifetime prevalence - one in seven Australians will experience depression in their lifetime and it has the third highest burden of all diseases in Australia and globally.

These childhood disorders present a much greater cumulative burden of disease on society compared to late-onset neurodegenerative diseases, yet effective therapies remain a major unmet medical need. Burden of disease refers to the total impact of a disease measured by financial cost, mortality, morbidity and other indicators and is often expressed as number of years of life lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.

Recent research from a range of laboratories around the world highlights that these disorders share common overlapping symptoms and underlying changes in the brain. Research led by Dr Jess Nithianantharajah at The Florey aims to target mental health through discovery research that is focused on addressing what goes wrong in the brains of individuals affected by autism, schizophrenia and depression by developing effective platforms that profile disease-relevant cognitive symptoms in preclinical animal models to drive the delivery of evidence-based therapeutics.

Dr Rachel Hill
Head of the Behavioural Neuroscience laboratory, Department of Psychiatry

The behavioural neuroscience laboratory are working to find better treatments for severe psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder. Psychiatric disorders are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental disturbances or ‘risk-factors’. Our laboratory models these risk factors in mice to understand at the molecular, physiological and behavioural level how these disturbances contribute to mental health. We use a number of different techniques, including genetic manipulation, mouse behavioural testing, in vivo electrophysiology, molecular biology, histology, and cell culture.

Our goal is to dissect the functional role of genetic and environmental risk factors that are strongly associated with schizophrenia. Through this preclinical work, novel therapeutic targets may be identified. In collaboration with division head and clinician Prof. Sundram, our novel therapeutic targets may then be trialled in patients. Indeed, we are currently initiating two phase 1B clinical trials of novel compounds identified through rigorous preclinical screening. Our team of talented and enthusiastic neuroscientists including post-doctoral fellows, PhD students and Honours students work as a collaborative unit with clinical psychiatrists to achieve our aim of finding effective treatments for psychiatric disorders.

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