Mental health breakthroughs in Australia

11 October 2017 | 2:30 min read | Thomas Skinner and Nina Schwarz


With everything that is going on in the world, you could be excused from missing that this week is National Mental Health Week in Australia. It was created with the objective of raising awareness of mental health issues, support available to people living with one of the conditions and latest research.

As part of this, NeuRA, Neuroscience Research Australia, has held a number of talks about their mental health research. Monday’s talks Addressing Mental Health Research, Discovery and Cures highlighted the great work of this leading mental health research facility delivering some ground breaking news about their research, focussing in particular on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Professor Cyndi Shannon Weickert has been leading a team who is looking to better understand the biological basis of schizophrenia. The team has found that neurons, historically the focus of schizophrenia research, might not be the main protagonist in the disease, but that the immune system might have a more important role to play. Their research has shown that people living with schizophrenia have a higher rate of ‘cytokines’ and immune cells in their brain – both of which are typically associated with the bodies response to inflammation. Based on this knowledge, the institute has carried out a small clinical trial, exploring the efficacy of immunosuppressant drugs in treating schizophrenia, and results are due in the new year. This exciting development could unlock a new pathway to support people living with schizophrenia or other related major mental health disorders where increased inflammation is present.

Dr Jan Fullerton and her team are working along other global research institutions to identify genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder. Using DNA sequencing and genomics they are aiming to identify combinations of genes that increase the risk of developing the severe mental health condition. Findings from these studies could help determine whether a young person is at increased risk and find new ways to prevent or delay disease onset.  

Dr Hanna Hensen and her team have been looking at the impacts of sleep in conjunction with mental health. Sleep directly impacts mental health and in the long term inadequate sleep increases the risk of developing depression, anxiety disorder and burn out. Whilst this might seem logical, a recent study found that 40% of Australians aren’t getting enough sleep each night. The Sleep Foundation recommends that adults sleep between 7-9 hours a night in order for the brain to process information we have accumulated across the day. Dr Hensen used the analogy of cooking in a kitchen: “If you cook and don’t clean the first night things start to pile up. If you were to do the same again and again and again, you wouldn’t be able to cook anymore and it’s exactly the same with brain function. In order for the brain to function properly it needs to be cleaned.” So Australia the challenge is to make sure you are having enough sleep each night.

Finally, Dr Richard Schweizer spoke about his experiences of living with schizophrenia and how treatments have helped to support him to get his life back to some structure. He shared his story of how he felt getting the diagnosis, what he had heard and how living with schizophrenia changed his life. He spoke about his parents who provided a support network which he believed aided his recovery. This talk put into perspective how far we have come with the help of research and new treatments but also how far we still have to go.

To find out more about the research being carried out and to hear talks from the research teams, visit NeuRATalks.