CRC for Mental Health

Below are profiles for some of the PhD students supported by the CRC. For more information on opportunities to study with the CRC, see the Postgraduate Training and Scholarships pages.

Karra Harrington

Sabine Bird

Dave Skvarc

Luz Fernanda Yévenes Ugarte

Pratishtha Chatterjee

Eleni Ganella

Tenielle Porter

 

kh crc profile

Karra Harrington

The Neuropsychiatric Features of Alzheimer’s DIsease

Find Karra on LinkedIn

Supervisors:

Professor Paul Maruff (Cogstate, University of Melbourne), Professor Colin Masters (CRC for Mental Health, University of Melbourne)

What are you hoping to discover in your research?

My research project looks at the development of Alzheimer’s disease over time, and is focussed on developing models that show the earliest signs of clinical divergence from normal cognitive ageing in healthy older adults. From this, I hope to identify prognostic outcomes for individuals who show this clinical divergence. The project uses data from the Australian Imaging Biomarkers and Lifestyle (AIBL) study of ageing, one of the largest longitudinal cohort studies of Alzheimer’s disease in the world. I am particularly interested in the translation of these outcomes to the clinical setting and developing protocols for the clinical management of Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest stages.

How did you become interested in this area?

Before starting my PhD, I had already worked in the AIBL study as a research assistant for 5 years, contributing to participant assessments, data analysis, and manuscript preparation, as well as coordinating the Rate of Change Sub-Study of AIBL. I have also completed a Masters in Clinical Psychology, and am a fully qualified psychologist. This project allows me to combine both of these interests. Long term, I hope to develop an independent lab that focuses on translating research into innovative multidisciplinary interventions that enhance quality of life for people who have a diagnosis of a neurodegenerative disease.

 

Sabine Bird CRC for Mental Health studentSabine Bird

“Investigating the role of the hormone irisin in Alzheimer’s disease”

Find Sabine on Linkedin

Supervisors:

Prof. Ralph Martins (CRC for Mental Health, Edith Cowan University, McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Foundation), Prof. Dieter Wildenauer (University of Western Australia), Dr Belinda Brown (Edith Cowan University), Dr Stephanie Rainey-Smith (Edith Cowan University), Dr Veer Gupta (CRC for Mental Health, Edith Cowan University).

What are you hoping to discover in your research?

It is well established that our brains benefit greatly from physical activity. Yet we still do not understand what exactly happens on the molecular basis in our brains during exercise. Around the world, a lot of research is underway attempting to elucidate these mechanisms. By investigating a novel hormone called irisin, I am hoping to improve our understanding of the burning question of what exercise actually does to our brains. The answer could ultimately lead to new ways to help older people maintain healthy brains by stimulating cognition and even ways to improve cognition in people suffering from neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Furthermore, there is a great need to identify so-called “biological markers” in the body, which can be used to detect changes in brain health before symptoms appear. Irisin is new to the scientific world and has been shown to be very worthy of being investigated as a biological marker for neurodegeneration.

How did you become interested in this area?

The brain is an incredibly fascinating organ, responsible for a variety of complex tasks that affect our whole existence. But it is also easily manipulable and makes us vulnerable to devastating diseases. Alzheimer’s disease can cause immense frustration in patients and family members and is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society. Many healthy middle-aged and older people fear one day falling victim to the disease. Therefore, I was keen on becoming involved with neuroscience research and hope to one day help to make a difference.

 

David Scvarc CRC for Mental Health studentDave Skvarc

“The Post-Anaesthesia N-Acetyl-Cysteine Cognitive EvaluAtion (PANACEA) trial: A randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind, single-centre trial”

Find Dave on Linkedin

Supervisors:

Dr Andrew Marriott (Barwon Health), Dr Linda Byrne (Deakin University), Dr Olivia Dean (CRC for Mental Health, Deakin University, Barwon Health)

What are you hoping to discover in your research?

Cognitive change after surgery is an established condition affecting many Australians, with as many as one in four elderly surgical patients experiencing post-operative dysfunction compared to pre-surgical performance. While cognitive change has been associated with long-term reductions in quality of life and increased risks of morbidity and hardship, to date no pharmacological intervention or preventative agent exists. This is in part due to the difficulties of identifying the exact mechanisms through which surgery impacts upon cognitive performance. The PANACEA project aims to examine the possibility of moderating the impact of cognitive change through peri-operative administration of the antioxidant N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC), in accordance with the putative mechanisms. If successful, the research will provide valuable clues to the mechanisms of post-operative cognitive change, and present a potential agent to assist in the management of elderly surgical patients.

How did you become interested in this area?

I have long held an interest in mental health and cognitive function, particularly in the area of neurodegenerative disease and the resilience of the elderly. I am particularly inspired by my maternal grandmother who, along with her partner, have provided primary care for my developmentally disabled aunt for over four decades—neither show any sign of slowing down soon. My Deakin supervisor, Dr Linda Byrne, was kind enough to recommend me to the PANACEA project based at Barwon Health.

 

Luz Fernanda Yevenes Ugarte CRC for Mental Health studentLuz Fernanda Yévenes Ugarte

“Metal regulation of extra-neuronal Tau”

Find Luz Fernanda on Linkedin

Supervisors:

Prof. Ashley Bush (CRC for Mental Health, University of Melbourne), Dr Ya Hui Hung (University of Melbourne), Dr Paul Adlard (University of Melbourne), A/Prof. David Finkelstein (University of Melbourne).

What are you hoping to discover in your research?

I am trying to aid the understanding of the pathophysiology of neurodegenerative diseases and hopefully contribute to the discovery of new methods to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.

How did you become interested in this area?

Since I was a little girl, I have been curious about how things work, and so I always knew that I was going to study science. But the real push to study neurodegenerative diseases came with the death of my grandfather due to Alzheimer’s disease when I was a kid. Half way through my undergraduate degree, I started working with Alzheimer’s-related labs, and I have never stopped since.

 

Pratishtha Chatterjee CRC for Mental Health studentPratishtha Chatterjee

“Investigating blood and cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers in autosomal dominant Alzheimer’s disease”

Pratishtha completed her PhD in August 2014. Find Pratishtha on Linkedin

Supervisors:

Prof. Ralph Martins (CRC for Mental Health, Edith Cowan University, McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Foundation), Dr Veer Gupta (CRC for Mental Health, Edith Cowan University), Dr Florence Lim (CRC for Mental Health, Edith Cowan University), Prof. Dieter Wildenauer (University of Western Australia).

What have you discovered in your research?

My research identified potential biomarkers that will contribute to a blood test for Alzheimer’s disease. I studied the blood and cerebrospinal fluid lipid and protein profiles of people who have genetic mutations that definitely cause Alzheimer’s at ages which are similar in onset to that of their parents. Because we know that they will definitely get Alzheimer’s and when this will likely occur, we were able to examine these individuals for changes in biomarkers that will act to signal that the disease is starting to happen as long as 20 years before any symptoms appear. The biomarkers found in these high risk people will potentially serve as diagnostic tests to benefit the wider community.

How did you become interested in this area?

An internship program at the Lions Eye Institute, Perth, gave me a taste of the complexity of Alzheimer’s disease pathology, which got me intrigued to further investigate the disease.

 

Ganella, EleniEleni Ganella

“Investigating the oxytocin receptor gene as biomarker for functional outcome in schizophrenia”

Supervisors:

Dr Cali Bartholomeusz (The University of Melbourne), Prof. Christos Pantelis (The University of Melbourne and CRC for Mental Health),  Dr Sarah Whittle (The University of Melbourne).

What are you hoping to discover in your research?

Impairments in social cognition are now recognised as a core feature of schizophrenia. One pharmaceutical agent that has been gaining increasing attention as a potential treatment for social cognitive and behavioural deficits in schizophrenia is the neuropeptide oxytocin. The aim of my research is to investigate the relationship between variants in the oxytocin receptor gene and functional connectivity of the neural networks underlying social cognition. I intend to identify neural phenotypes that link the oxytocin receptor gene to functional outcome in individuals with schizophrenia. My hope is that the findings of this research will be clinically informative, particularly in clarifying risk factors for psychosis and predicting treatment response to oxytocin, which may aid in tailoring treatment to the individual in future clinical practice.

How did you become interested in this area?

During my honours year at Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre , my supervisors Dr Bartholomeusz and Professor Pantelis introduced me to the spectrum of ongoing schizophrenia research (and all that is still yet to be done). Research into oxytocin as a potential treatment therapy particularly fascinated me, as I believe it has the potential to improve functional outcome.

 

TeniellePorterTenielle Porter

“Understanding the genetic architecture of rates of change in preclinical Alzheimer’s disease”

Find Tenielle on Linkedin

Supervisors:

A/Prof. Simon Laws (CRC for Mental Health, Edith Cowan University), A/Prof. Giuseppe Verdile (ECU, Curtin University, McCusker Foundation, UWA), A/Prof. David Groth (Curtin University), Dr Andrea Wilson (ECU).

What are you hoping to discover in your research?

There are numerous genetic variants that have been identified as slightly increasing a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease. I aim to identify rarer variants that may have larger effects on a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s, by using a technique called whole-exome sequencing combined with population enrichment. Once these variants have been identified in the Australian Imaging, Biomarkers and Lifestyle (AIBL) and Australian Parkinson’s disease registry cohorts, I aim to determine how the genes operate to increase a person’s chance of Alzheimer’s disease. This approach has the potential to uncover avenues for developing more targeted treatments, and to assist in the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

How did you become interested in this area?

I have always been interested in many facets of science, from physics to psychology to medicine. My area of research allows me to be involved in many areas of biomedical research, and also gives me the chance to work with people with a wide range of backgrounds. I have chosen to focus on Alzheimer’s disease after seeing the impact that the loss of cognition and memory can have on people and their families. This continues to shape and motivate my research.