Imaging mental health: mapping and modelling mental health disorders

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1. Project summary (maximum 150 words)

Our ability to interpret and process information and regulate emotion is determined by the structure and chemical makeup of our brains. A change to this structure or biochemical makeup can affect our mental health, how we cope with the normal stresses of life, our productivity, and our overall wellbeing.

I am a physicist specialising in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). My work focuses on investigating mental health disorders: healthy brain ageing, age related decline, emergence of mental health disorders, and adolescent brain development using MRI. MRI is an extremely versatile imaging technique that provides detailed information on the chemical makeup, structural architecture and functional connectivity of the brain. My work focuses on translating cutting-edge imaging techniques to map and model mental health disorders. With the aim to better understand the blueprint of healthy function, how our brains differ with mental health disorders and how we can all stay mentally healthy.

2. How does your project benefit Queensland? (maximum 500 words)

Mental illnesses are the third leading cause of disability burden in Australia, in each year, approximately one in every five Australians will experience a mental illness. Prevalence of mental health disorders is greatest among 18-24-year-olds, with more than half of all mental health problems emerging before the age of 14. Concerningly, it is estimated that, one in four young Australians meet the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness. Furthermore, although the prevalence of mental illness decreases with age we know that social disconnectedness and loneliness all pay key roles in depression in the elderly.

Clearly, mental health is a growing issue for all Queenslanders and Australian alike. Unfortunately, poor mental health is a risk factor of suicide. The previously mentioned troubling statistics on mental health contribute to the fact that roughly 700 Queenslanders die by suicide every year. In fact, a quarter of all suicide deaths in Australia occur in Queensland with regional areas being affected the most.

With our understanding of the developmental emergence of mental disorders in its’ infancy and so many Australians not getting adequate early intervention, there is clearly room for improvement. To better support people with mental health disorders, we not only need to further our understanding of the brain in health and disease, but also stimulate interest at a community level, encouraging people’s interest in neuroscience and mental health. The Sunshine Coast Mind and Neuroscience Thompson Institute (SCMNTI) was established at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) to play a major role in tackling the issue of mental health, both locally and nationally with the mission to integrate mental health research, community outreach and teaching. SCMNTI has brought nationally and international renowned scientist to work on the Coast as one of its strengths is its outreach ability to regional communities, communities that are most affected by mental health disorders. It is here, where I work as a Senior Research Fellow, running and coordinating the imaging facilities across multiple research projects focused around mental health.

My research project focuses on mapping and modelling brain changes associated with mental health, with the aim to better understand how our brains differ with disorders and how we can all maintain our mental health. By imaging and mapping how mental health disorders manifest within the brain with the latest imaging and analysis techniques, I aim to 1: understand how the structural and chemical makeup of the brain differs in health and disease. 2: Determine how different treatments affect the brain, identify efficacious treatment approaches. 3: Start to model and predict the emergence of disease, identifying individuals early on that require treatment. The combination of the community outreach, teaching and research initiatives at SCMNTI allows me to work with, and alongside the Sunshine Coast community to improving our understanding of mental health and mental health treatment. In doing so my research is reaching the most at-risk populations as well as starting discussions around mental health in those very same communities. 

3. What STEM promotion/engagement activities do you do/have you done? (maximum 500 words)

I have a keen interest in making physics more accessible to high school students as this is where I first developed my passion for the subject. I have several STEM projects that I am involved with aimed at engaging both high school and higher research degree students. I was an invited presenter for Frontiers for Young Minds (FYM), an open-access journal where papers are written by scientists and reviewed by young people, thereby encouraging scientists to make their work more accessible. This FYM live review (first outside of the USA) for their new Research Topic: ‘Different ways to help those with mental illness’ featured 5 shortlisted presented papers reviewed by a panel of 11 young reviewers (grade 10 students from Matthew Flinders Anglican College, Buderim). My paper explained the fundamental principles of MRI, linking with, and provided real world applications for classroom taught material on electromagnetism as well as highlighting how researchers use MRI to investigate mental health disorders. Following this my paper was selected for a short profile-raising video ( that focused around promoting FYM as well as highlighting my career path in STEM.

I am currently establishing neuroimaging analysis workshops for classes of high school students as part of the STEM outreach program at SCMNTI. The workshop will provide courses in data processing, teaching students techniques to analysis large neuroimaging datasets. I have designed the course so that they will work on an adolescent brain dataset, and in so doing so will learn how their own brain changes throughout their development and how mental disorders can affect this very dynamic developmental period.

I am also working with the USC IT department to develop a Future Researchers program to provide young people and schools the opportunity to gain understanding of neuroscience research and mental health. This program consists of half-day educational sessions targeted at 12-17-year-olds run out of the CAVE2, a world class visualisation facility housed in the USC Sunshine Coast campus. The program I have created comprises of presentations and practical sessions based on a range of topics related to neuroscience and youth mental health that have been developed to take advantage of the CAVE2 3D and virtual reality facilities. Allowing students to visualise and interact with such material as 1: How MRI works from fundamental electromagnetic principles, 2: How the brain changes during adolescences in health and disease, 3: The importance of maintaining mental health and practical demonstrations of mindfulness techniques.

I am also a member of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine and am currently working with the committee to setup the first joint Australian and New Zealand (ANZ) chapter to launch November this year. To be able to present your work to the research community is vital for early career researchers, yet often ANZ students miss out due to expensive oversee travel fees. My aim for this chapter is to have a heavy focus on higher degree research students, providing them with an opportunity to present their work at an internationally renowned platform.



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