The Major Challenge
Mental illness is estimated to affect one in five Australians during their lifetime. It accounts for 25% of the economic health burden in Australia, and this figure is growing.
At present, mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia can only be diagnosed once symptoms appear. Enabling earlier diagnosis will be central to developing treatments for these diseases.
In order to combat the personal, social, and economic effects of mental illness, the CRC aims to identify biological indicators that can be used to diagnose these diseases. These indicators are known as biomarkers. In some areas of medicine, disease biomarkers aid enormously in the early detection of disease. For example, blood sugar levels are commonly used as a biomarker for diabetes.
Currently, however, there are no reliable early diagnostic markers available for the detection of neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease) and psychoses (e.g. schizophrenia and mood disorders) which means we cannot diagnose these diseases before the onset of mental decline. In the case of Parkinson’s Disease, for example, you may have the disease for up to 10 years before the first symptoms emerge.
The CRC for Mental Health is undertaking research to identify and validate biomarkers for the early detection and treatment of neurodegenerative disorders and psychoses. We are also working with health care professionals to ensure that discoveries and new approaches to treatment are integrated into medical and health care practices.
The biomarkers we seek could be specific cells, proteins or protein fragments, small molecules, genes, gene products, hormones, or subtle changes in the appearance of the brain under MRI or PET scanning. Once validated, biomarkers will enhance opportunities for:
- determining the likelihood that a person may develop a mental illness or disorder
- diagnosing mental health conditions in the early stages of development
- monitoring disease progression and
- assessing responses to drug treatment.