Mental Health

The Mental Health Division conducts research to understand what causes psychiatric and neurodegenerative illness and to find better ways to diagnose and treat them.  

Due to the synergies between illnesses and research methods, we have also conducted research into autism, motor neurone disease / Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, dementia with Lewy bodies and addiction.

Visit the research division for more information

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia.  Dementia is a serious loss of mental capacity that can result in confusion and permanent loss of memory.  It is the third largest cause of death in Australia*. Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of ageing, but a degenerative illness that impairs mental functions affecting memory, personality and intellect.

There were 245,400 people with dementia in Australia in 2009.  Unless something changes, Access Economics predicts that this will rise to around 1.1 million people by 2050. Most of us know someone personally who has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, but some famous people who have experienced it include Ronald Reagan, Iris Murdoch and Hazel Hawke.

Symptoms

People with Alzheimer’s disease usually deteriorate gradually, and the symptoms expressed will differ from one person to another.

Early Symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Unusual irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Impaired decision making

Late Symptoms include:

  • Forgetting major events and/or names of loved ones
  • Inability to care for one’s self or home
  • Inability to manage daily responsibilities
  • Personality changes, sometimes including aggression
  • Difficulties sleeping, using the toilet and eating

Causes

Alzheimer's disease occurs when a protein called amyloid accumulates in the brain. Brain cells are damaged when this protein reacts with copper and iron, which are abundant in the brain, in a chemical reaction similar to rusting. The affected brain cells no longer effectively transmit information.

Alzheimer’s disease research

Research into Alzheimer’s disease is carried out in the Institute’s:

  • Neuropathology Research Group
    Led by our Executive Director, Professor Colin Masters, this group aims to understand the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, in order to find ways to objectively diagnose and effectively treat them.
  • Oxidation Biology Laboratory
    Professor Ashley Bush and his group are looking at how key proteins interact inappropriately with metals in the brain to cause “oxidative stress” in diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.  They are actively working to develop a disease-modifying drug for Alzheimer’s disease, with one currently in clinical trials.
  • Clinical Research Group
    Collaborators in the Australian Imaging, Biomarkers and Lifestyle Study of Ageing, the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer’s Network and other projects that investigate dementia by observing people with, or at risk of, Alzheimer’s disease as compared to healthy ageing subjects.

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson's disease is a chronic and progressively degenerative neurological disorder which affects the control of body movements. 
Every day, 30 people in Australia are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease usually affects people over the age of 50.  However, up to one in five patients, like Michael J Fox, are diagnosed between the ages of 30 and 50 years.

Symptoms

The primary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are:

  • Tremor (shaking, trembling), usually commencing in one hand and travelling down that side before moving to the other; as the disease progresses the shaking may interfere with daily activities.
  • Rigidity, or stiffness of the limbs and trunk.
  • Bradykinesia, or slowness of movement, which occurs when the brain can no longer control fine movements.

As these symptoms become more pronounced, patients may have difficulty walking, talking and completing other simple tasks.

Causes

Parkinson’s disease occurs when dopamine-producing brain cells become impaired. Dopamine allows smooth, coordinated function of the body's muscles and movement. When approximately 70% of the dopamine-producing cells are damaged, the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease appear.

Parkinson’s disease research

Research into Parkinson’s disease is carried out in the Institute’s:

  • Neuropathology Research Group
    Led by our Executive Director, Professor Colin Masters, this group aims to understand the underlying causes of neurodegeneration, in order to find ways to objectively diagnose and effectively treat them.
  • Oxidation Biology Laboratory
    This group is looking at how key proteins interact inappropriately with metals in the brain to cause “oxidative stress” in diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.  They are particularly interested in the occurrence of dementia in Parkinson’s disease.

What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a major psychotic illness that affects the functioning of the brain, interfering with a way a person thinks, feels and acts. The most common time of onset for males is between 18 and 25 years and for females between 25 years and mid-30s.
While many people have only witnessed schizophrenia in movies like A Beautiful Mind, it actually affects one in 100 people worldwide. Some of these people will recover completely. For others treatment can alleviate the debilitating symptoms. However, for 15-20% of patients it remains an extremely disabling, lifelong illness.*

Symptoms

Schizophrenia is characterised by two or more of the following:

  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorganised speech
  • Grossly disorganised or catatonic behaviour
  • Negative symptoms (e.g. social withdrawal, reduced motivation/interest, inappropriate responses)

For diagnosis, these symptoms must impair social and occupational functioning and continue for at least six months.

Causes

There are a number of theories about what causes schizophrenia, but so far the biological mechanisms behind the disease are not fully understood.  What we do know is:

  • People with a first degree relative with schizophrenia are ten times more likely to develop it themselves.
  • Stress may increase the chance of someone already vulnerable developing schizophrenia.
  • Increased levels of dopamine may explain some psychotic symptoms.
  • Recreational drug use has been associated with triggering episodes.

Schizophrenia research

Research into schizophrenia is carried out in the Institute’s:

  • Molecular Psychiatry
    Professor Brian Dean and his team are looking at post-mortem brain tissue in an attempt to see what is different in the brains of people who had a mental illness.  They believe that schizophrenia is a syndrome made up of a number of diseases. By identifying and describing these, researchers hope to enable more targeted and effective treatments.
  • Molecular Psychopharmacology Laboratory
    Associate Professor Suresh Sundram and his colleagues are investigating the mechanics of how the medicines used to treat mental illness work in the brain. This understanding may enable us to identify both the causes of the disorders and better ways of treating them.
  • Behavioural Neuroscience Laboratory
    Associate Professor Maarten van den Buuse and his team use animal models to study how neurotransmitters in the brain are involved in mental illness.  Some of the factors being investigated include oestrogen effects and gender differences, the 2-hit stress hypothesis, serotonin levels and antioxidants.
  • Clinical Discovery Project
    In a partnership with Barwon Psychiatric Research Unit, the Institute is involved in clinical trials investigating antioxidant treatments for psychiatric illnesses including schizophrenia.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression. It 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. 
Bipolar disorder affects nearly 100,000 Australians*. It typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. Bipolar disorder can be very disruptive. One in five people with bipolar disorder commit suicide. Like diabetes, this mood disorder is a long-term illness that requires careful ongoing management. On average, it takes 10 years and 4 doctors before an accurate diagnosis is reached.

Symptoms

A manic episode involves a week or more of symptoms including:

  • Elevated / euphoric mood
  • Increased energy, activity and restlessness
  • Distractibility, poor concentration and lack of sleep
  • Heightened beliefs about one's abilities
  • Poor judgement, possibly including spending sprees and provocative behaviour
  • Drug abuse, particularly cocaine, alcohol and sleeping pills
  • Extreme irritability or aggressive behaviour
  • Denial that anything is wrong

A depressive episode involves two weeks or more of symptoms including:

  • Lasting sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, ‘slowing down’
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Sleeping too much, or can't sleep
  • Change in appetite and/or unintended weight loss/gain
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Chronic pain or other persistent physical symptoms not caused by physical illness or injury
  • Thoughts of death or suicide (suicidal ideation) or suicide attempts

Causes

Like other mental illnesses, bipolar disorder cannot yet be identified physiologically – for example, through a blood test or brain scan. Diagnosis is therefore made on the basis of symptoms, course of illness and, when available, family history. 
We do, however, know that:

  • bipolar disorder tends to run in families so there may be a genetic component - at least 50% of people with bipolar disorder have a parent with a mood disorder.
  • environmental triggers include relationship difficulties and work pressures, especially during the early stage of the illness.

Bipolar disorder research

Research into bipolar disorder is carried out in the Institute’s:

  • Molecular Psychiatry
    Professor Brian Dean and his team are looking at post-mortem brain tissue in an attempt to see what is different in the brains of people who had a mental illness. Understanding the pathology of the diseases will enable the drugs to be developed that target proteins or RNA known to be affected.  
  • Molecular Psychopharmacology Laboratory
    Associate Professor Suresh Sundram and his colleagues are investigating the mechanics of how the medicines used to treat mental illness work in the brain. This understanding may enable us to identify both the causes of the disorders and better ways of treating them.
  • Behavioural Neuroscience Laboratory
    Associate Professor Maarten van den Buuse and his team use animal models to study how neurotransmitters in the brain are involved in mental illness.  Some factors being investigated include oestrogen effects and gender differences, serotonin levels and antioxidants.
  • Clinical Discovery Project
    In a partnership with Barwon Psychiatric Research Unit, the Institute is involved in clinical trials investigating antioxidant treatments for psychiatric illnesses including depression.

What is depression?
Depression is an illness. People with depression feel sad, down or miserable most of the time. They find it hard to function from day to day.

About 800,000 Australians experience depression each year.  On average, one in four women and one in six men will have depression at some point in their lives. Among these are many celebrities - including Gary McDonald, Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Rachel Griffiths - who have publicly shared their experience with depression in order to reduce stigma about the illness.

Symptoms

A person may have depression if for more than two weeks they:

  • feel sad, down and miserable
  • Lose interest in things that they would normally enjoy
  • experience three or more symptoms across the following areas:
      - Thoughts: Worthlessness or guilt, suicidal ideas and/or thoughts of death, bleak or pessimistic view of the future
      - Physical: Appetite and weight changes, sleep changes or insomnia, fatigue or loss of energy
      - Behaviours: Moving and thinking slowly or faster, unable to concentrate, memory problems, difficulty making decisions, restlessness or irritability.

These symptoms of depression can be challenging for both the sufferers and the people around them.

Causes

There are generally a number of interrelated factors associated with depression.  These include heredity, biochemistry (reduced neurotransmitters), stress, personality traits and the presence of other illnesses.

Depression research

Research into depression is carried out in the Institute’s:

  • Molecular Psychiatry
    Professor Brian Dean and his team are looking at post-mortem brain tissue in an attempt to see what is different in the brains of people who had a mental illness. Understanding the pathology of the diseases will enable the drugs to be developed that target proteins or RNA known to be affected.  
  • Molecular Psychopharmacology Laboratory
    Associate Professor Suresh Sundram and his colleagues are investigating the mechanics of how the medicines used to treat mental illness work in the brain. This understanding may enable us to identify both the causes of the disorders and better ways of treating them.
  • Behavioural Neuroscience Laboratory
    Associate Professor Maarten van den Buuse and his team use animal models to study how neurotransmitters in the brain are involved in mental illness.  Some factors being investigated include oestrogen effects and gender differences, serotonin levels and antioxidants.
  • Clinical Discovery Project
    In a partnership with Barwon Psychiatric Research Unit, the Institute is involved in clinical trials investigating antioxidant treatments for psychiatric illnesses including depression.