The University of Melbourne has launched the CRC for Mental Health’s innovative mental wellbeing and productivity program for graduate research students.
Write Smarter: Feel Better combines writing sessions with facilitated discussions about common students experiences, health and wellbeing.
University of Melbourne Manager of Student Engagement and Peer Programs Megan Dench said undertaking a graduate degree can be both rewarding and challenging.
“Developing connection with peers who are going through common experiences can be incredibly valuable,” Ms Dench said.
“During sessions, student facilitators help groups to build these social support networks, while attendees also get to work on their own writing.”
With increasing evidence that PhD students face significant mental health challenges, Write Smarter: Feel Better was developed and piloted by the CRC for Mental Health, with input from PhD students and a psychologist.
CRC for Mental Health Head of Education Melanie Carew said Write Smarter: Feel Better was developed after their PhD students recognised that many of their peers were feeling isolated during their candidature, despite having supportive supervisors.
“The program started as a way to connect our students in different states and gradually evolved inot a model where graduate students can focus on wellbeing, sharing experiences and supporting each other,” said Ms Carew.
The program is peer-led, so students discuss issues of direct relevance to them.
Karra Harrington, co-developer of the program and a PhD student, said her involvement in a Write Smarter: Feel Better group has had lasting benefits.
“I always leave a session having made progress on my thesis or journal articles,” Ms Harrington said.
“More importantly, I get to share and hear from others about the ups and downs that come during any PhD. Our group has given advice and shared our perspectives on areas as diverse as data analysis, networking at conferences, dealing with parental leave and the additional challenges faced by international students.”
“My involvement in Write Smarter: Feel Better has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my PhD experience.”
All volunteer graduate student facilitators in the program are given mental health first aid training and have regular contact with university staff.
The CRC for Mental Health is pleased to partner with the University of Melbourne who have a strong commitment to ensuring that members of their university community who may be experiencing mental health difficulties receive timely and appropriate support. More information about the University of Melbourne’s involvement.
Dr Nina McCarthy attended Science Meets Parliament last month representing the CRC for Mental Health. The event brings together leaders across politics, policy and STEM to discuss the role of science in Australia.
“The event provided an opportunity to communicate directly with decision makers about my research into the genetic underpinnings of mental health disorders like schizophrenia. From attending, I have a better appreciation of how I can provide a unique perspective and work with politicians and policy professionals to have input into solutions to major challenges,” said Dr McCarthy.
“Science meets Parliament was also a fantastic chance to learn from my scientific peers about the diversity and quality of work they’re conducting. I’d like to thank Mrs Nola Marino MP for her time during our small group meeting and all of those who shared their learnings and viewpoints throughout the event.”
Dr McCarthy is a postdoctoral research fellow at the CRC for Mental Health and University of Western Australia. In addition to her research applying statistical techniques to analyse large genetic datasets to understand human health, she is interested in driving more meaningful involvement of community in mental health research projects.
New results released today point the way toward a potential new Alzheimer’s disease therapy, which will soon be trialled in Australia’s major cities.
A collaboration between researchers at the Florey and CSIRO have shown an association between higher levels of brain iron, the presence of the Alzheimer’s protein, amyloid, and poorer memory and language skills.
Dr Scott Ayton and Professor Ashley Bush from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and the CRC for Mental Health led the study, published today in Brain, which used the data gathered from 117 participants in the Australian Imaging and Biomarker Lifestyle (AIBL) study.
Scientists have long known that the slow build-up of a substance known as amyloid in the brain determines whether people will eventually experience Alzheimer’s disease. The team of Australian researchers have shown that about 30 per cent of people in their 70s have high levels of amyloid in their brain, but confusingly, some retain all their cognitive faculties much longer than others.
Some other factor had to be involved. It turns out, that something else may be iron.
Six years ago, 117 AIBL participants had their level of amyloid protein and brain iron measured using brain scans – PET for amyloid and MRI for iron. Every 18 months since, their memory, language, attention and executive functioning has been exhaustively tested. The researchers used this data to see whether brain iron and amyloid can predict people’s cognitive performance.
The Florey’s Dr Ayton says, “Cognitive abilities like short-term memory, executive function and language ability declined much faster in people with high brain iron levels and high amyloid levels, even if they were otherwise healthy, than those with low brain iron who were also amyloid positive.”
Although this study used correlations between iron, amyloid and cognitive performance, and thus iron can’t yet be called a ‘causative’ agent in Alzheimer’s disease, the results make compelling biological sense.
Higher iron levels in the hippocampus of amyloid-positive people predicted worse performance on a series of short-term memory tasks. The hippocampus, curiously enough, is where our short-term memories are created and stored.
Similarly, our powers of language are mainly centred in our temporal lobe (just above where our ears sit) and our frontal lobe, and higher iron in these brain regions predicted poorer performance in language-based tasks.
“These results suggest that iron acts together with amyloid to speed up the Alzheimer’s disease process. Those individuals with high amyloid but low iron will also eventually go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease, but much later than their high-iron counterparts,” says Dr Ayton.
The discovery was made possible using technology developed by CSIRO and conducted in a collaborative study funded by the CRC for Mental Health.
“We’ve refined MRI technology to allow the very precise mapping of iron levels in the brain,” said CSIRO researcher Dr Olivier Salvado, one of the lead authors on the paper.
“Collaborating with world-leading scientists at the Florey Institute was critical to drive our innovation into potential clinical use.”
The researchers are excited by the study, because it opens up a promising new avenue for Alzheimer’s drug treatments.
To test the theory, Florey scientists plan to use an existing drug, deferiprone, to ‘mop-up’ excess iron in the brain and see if it can slow down the progression of the disease.
“The 3D trial is extremely exciting because for the first time we will be able to assess someone’s risk of progressing into cognitive decline without needing to perform invasive and costly tests. We will also be testing a compound that may prevent or slow the natural course of the disease,” says Professor Bush.
“If the 3D trial results prove that low iron slows disease progression, we imagine a future where your GP sends you off for your 60-year health check, including a brain iron MRI scan, which is quick, cheap and painless. If you have high brain iron, then we would order an amyloid PET scan. Once we had those two measurements, we could predict the likely onset of Alzheimer’s and begin you on therapy to lower the iron, and delay disease onset.”
If you are over 65 and noticed that your memory is declining, or you are newly diagnosed with dementia, you can register your interest in being involved in the study at 3D@florey.edu.au. Eligible participants will be contacted when the study opens for enrolment later this year.
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Australian researchers have found biochemical changes occurring in the blood, in the rare inherited form of Alzheimer’s disease. Changes in these fat-like substances may suggest a method to diagnose all forms of Alzheimer’s disease before significant damage to the brain occurs.
In an article published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s disease, the Australian team led by Professor Ralph Martins from the CRC for Mental Health and Edith Cowan University, examined the lipid profiles of 20 people who carry a mutation responsible for the rare inherited form of Alzheimer’s, known as familial Alzheimer’s disease.
Using samples from the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network (DIAN) study, the researchers found that people who carried the mutation responsible for this form of Alzheimer’s also had altered levels of specific lipids in their blood plasma compared to the control group. This pilot study, combined with previously published studies in lipids on the most common form of Alzheimer’s disease, suggests that the specific changes in lipid metabolism may be used a predictive test for Alzheimer’s disease.
At present, the most common, sporadic form of Alzheimer’s disease is difficult to diagnose until symptoms are readily apparent and significant damage to the brain has occurred; findings from this study may provide clues to suitable diagnostic markers. While the results are exciting, the researchers involved urge conversation due to the pilot nature of the study.
Each year at the CRC Association annual conference, a number of early career researchers are selected to present their research to the conference. The early career researcher showcases good research, communicated well.
Tenielle Porter, PhD student with the CRC for Mental Health and Edith Cowan University, has submitted her video application where she discusses her research project “Understanding the genetic architecture of rates of change in pre-clinical Alzheimer’s disease”.
ABC Radio National has broadcast the Diagnosing Dementia event on its Big Ideas program as a part of the ABC’s Mental As week. Hosted by Paul Barclay, an expert panel spoke about how we might be able to detect and diagnose dementia in the future. They also talked about why this research is an important step forward for finding a treatment and even a cure, and when these techniques might become a reality.
Over the past few years, significant progress has been made towards techniques which could diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia 10 – 20 years before symptoms occur. A simple blood test, eye imaging, brain scans and memory tests could all be part of the future for a dementia diagnosis. What could they actually tell us, how accurate are they likely to be and if you could know, would you want to?
The panel consisted of:
- Mr Graeme Samuel (National President, Alzheimer’s Australia)
- Ms Jenny Lloyd (Consumer, aged 62)
- Professor Ashley Bush (Chief Scientific Officer, CRC for Mental Health and Head, Oxidation Laboratory, the Florey)
- Dr Rachel Buckley – (AADRF Fellow, The University of Melbourne)
- Dr Shaun Frost – (Research Fellow, Preventative Health Flagship, CSIRO)