NHMRC Fellowships and ARC Project

Congratulations to A/Prof Ben Harrison, Dr Sarah Whittle and Dr Chad
Bousman on being awarded three new NHMRC Fellowships and an ARC Discovery

Three new NHMRC Fellowships and an ARC Discovery Project won at the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre

Researchers at the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre have received funding for three Career Development Fellowships from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The grants awarded will support a number of projects studying depression from a developmental, genetic and neural systems level, including research into biomarkers using functional neuroimaging and genotyping research methods.

Despite the high prevalence of depression in adolescence and early adulthood, and its deleterious effects on lifelong functioning, there is a current lack of knowledge about the mechanisms underlying risk for this disorder.

A/Prof Sarah Whittle was successful under the 2017 Fellowship Biomedical scheme. Her research will investigate neurodevelopmental risk mechanisms for depression from gestation to emerging adulthood. An important feature will be to investigate various ways in which environmental exposures experienced at different phases of development influence and interact with neurodevelopment to confer risk for depression. Identifying environmental factors that influence neurodevelopmental risk at specific phases of life will provide a clear basis for the design of targeted psychosocial prevention strategies that target the individual, their families and/or broader environmental factors.

Dr Chad Bousman's Fellowship research will focus on improving the effectiveness of antidepressants through the use of genomic technology. The effectiveness of antidepressants in practice is variable. Only 35% – 45% of individuals achieve symptom remission following their first trial of medication, suggesting a “one-size fits all” approach to antidepressant prescribing is suboptimal. As such, personalised medicine has become an international research priority and genotype-guided prescribing is an emerging part of clinical practice. In fact, genotype-guided prescribing is already making an impact in other fields of medicine (e.g. oncology, cardiology). Over the next four years, Dr Bousman and his research team will be developing and testing pharmacogenetic tools with the utility to guide antidepressant prescribing and improve depression outcomes. In addition, his team will evaluate the clinical validity and utility of pharmacogenetic tools currently available to antidepressant prescribers in Australia and elsewhere.

As Australia faces a major public health burden as a result of the high prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders, with their tremendous cost on individuals, society and the economy, A/Prof Ben Harrison will investigate optimisation of the early and effective treatment of these disorders before they become chronic and debilitating must be a national priority. The program of research to be conducted during A/Prof Harrison’s Fellowship will use advanced neuroimaging models to understand how disturbances of large-scale brain systems may explain the early clinical manifestation of these disorders. Through a strong emphasis on research translation, one of the overarching goals of this work will be to identify and validate novel brain systems-level biomarkers of clinical outcome, in particular treatment responsiveness, that can be used to inform ongoing intervention-focused research, including future prospective clinical trials. Given the importance of this endeavour, both scientifically, in terms of understanding the brain basis of common mood and anxiety disorders in young people, and clinically, in terms of optimising the provision of existing treatments with a biological rationale, this research will be of broad significance in the neuroscience and mental health fields.

Additionally, Dr Andrew Zalesky has been awarded a Discovery Project grant by the Australian Research Council to investigate structural-functional connectivity in the brain. Dr Zalesky is currently supported by an NHMRC CDF fellowship. His new grant with A/Prof F. Calamante of the Florey Neuroscience Institute will fund a postdoctoral researcher who will develop neuroimaging methodologies to address the unique challenges of integrating data across different MRI modalities, different spatial scales and varying signal-to-noise ratios. The aim of this new project is to develop a methodology to enable principled integration of structural and functional brain scans so that white matter fibers supporting a functional brain connection can be identified. This is joint work with A/Prof F. Calamante. Dr Zalesky’s work in neuropsychiatric connectomics is highly cited and he has developed some of the most widely used methods for performing inference on brain networks. He was recently awarded the Aubery Lewis Award for research excellence in biological psychiatry.

Competition for grants remains high and continuing low success rates make it increasingly difficult for academics to secure government funding. Congratulations to the Centre’s success and the consistently high results.