Biological Neuropsychiatry and Dementia

Neuropsychiatric disorders encompass a broad range of mental conditions that are attributed to diseases of the nervous system. These include cognitive deficits, degenerative diseases and mood disorders. Two of the most prevalent and debilitating of these conditions are depression and dementia, which are the main focus of research in our team. Depressive disorders are among the major contributors to the burden of disease in Australian and worldwide. Dementia has been labelled as the greatest global health challenge of the 21 century with over 47 million people living with dementia worldwide, and 6.4 million Australians predicted to be diagnosed with dementia over the next 40 years.

Our team conducts research to better understand risk factors for these disorders and to identify preventative treatment and lifestyle interventions to reduce their incidence. Our research is also focused on the identification of biomarkers for these disorders, to improve the accuracy and timing of diagnosis, and to help assess the effectiveness of interventions.

Head of Unit

Associate Professor Joanne Ryan

Phone: +61 3 9903 0200

Our Team

Dr Rosanne Freak-Poli, Senior Research Fellow
Peter Fransquet, postdoctoral researcher
Dinuli Nilaweera, PhD student
Aung ZawZaw Phyo, PhD student
Swarna Vishwanath, PhD student
Jo Wrigglesworth, PhD student
Zimu Wu, PhD student
Cathey Saha, Honours student
Danushika Pandigama, Honours student
Nura Yaacob, Honours student

Come study with us!

This is an exciting and growing field with scope to conduct research using clinical data, genomic and biochemical data. We have access to the ASPREE dataset, an unparalleled set of clinical data and biospecimens from one of Australia’s largest clinical trials, comprising information from over 19,000 healthy older adults. We also coordinate with the STAREE trial, which is predicted to provide a similar wealth of information upon completion.

In the face of an ageing population, these datasets will provide vital information that will inform our understanding of illness and the ageing process, and potentially lead to important changes to clinical care.

We are keen to welcome highly motivated and enthusiastic students.

Review our available projects here, or email to discuss.


Comprehensive prediction models for dementia & protective factors for cognitive health

The aim of this project is to build comprehensive models of dementia risk by leveraging extensive longitudinal data already obtained on a large population-based cohort, including advanced genetic and biological data. This will also permit the identification of modifiable and moderating factors to better inform early targeted interventions and thereby reduce the incidence of dementia.

Identification of dementia in the preclinical stage using a biological signature

The prevalence rates of dementia are rising, but many individuals remain undiagnosed. Accurate and timely diagnosis is key for the optimal targeting of interventions. The aim of this project is to identify a non-invasive and robust blood biomarker that could be used to more accurately diagnosis dementia. It will also offer the potential to determine predictive biomarkers for preclinical dementia diagnosis.

Stressful life events and their impact on physical and mental well-being

Stress is a risk factor for a range of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and has been described as the 21st century health epidemic. The aim of this study is to determine how the timing, severity and accumulation of stress exposure can influence later physical and mental health, including cognitive decline and risk of dementia. Whether or not resilient factors can be identified that help buffer against the negative effects of stress, will also be investigated. The underlying biological mechanisms driving these associations are also unclear.

Biological embedding of stress and later risk of disease

Stress during critical periods of development can result in long-term alterations in brain structures and stress signalling. Mounting evidence has linked this with long-term health effects. The aim of this study is to ascertain whether biological and brain structural measures are useful biomarkers of cumulative stress exposure, and to determine the role of epigenetics in mediating the effects of stress on later health outcomes.

Epigenetic biomarkers of depression and brain structural alterations

Depression is a complex disorder involving multiple genes with small effects and complex interactions between genetic predisposition and environmental factors. Epigenetic mechanisms also appear to be involved. Peripheral epigenetic alterations hold promise as a diagnostic biomarker of depression. The aim of this study is to investigate epigenetic biomarkers of depression and their potential association with structural brain alterations, as intermediate phenotypes of depression.

Social interaction and cognitive function (contact: Dr Rosanne Freak-Poli)

The aim of this project is to examine the extent to which social isolation and loneliness status are risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia in healthy older Australians.

Sexual activity and cognitive function (contact: Dr Rosanne Freak-Poli)

The aim of this project is to determine whether cognitive impairment impacts sexual activity and physical tenderness among community dwelling older adults.


Click here to see our publications.


We have numerous national and international collaborations which includes the following:

  • ASPREE clinical trial – Prof John McNeil, Monash University
  • ASPREE Healthy Ageing Biobank – A/Prof Robyn Woods, Monash University
  • ASPREE Genomics – Dr Paul Lacaze, Monash University
  • STAREE clinical trial – Prof Sophia Zoungas, Monash University
  • Three City (3C) Study – Prof Karen Ritchie, Inserm U1061 & University of Edinburgh (UK)
  • ESPRIT & ESPRIT-VIE – Prof Marie-Laure Ancelin, Inserm U1061 (France)
  • Australian Temperament Project (ATP) – Prof Craig Olsson, Deakin University
  • Triple B Cohort Study – Dr Delyse Hutchinson, Deakin University
  • Disease Epigenetics – Prof Richard Saffery, MCRI & The University of Melbourne
  • Early-life epigenetics – Prof Jeff Craig, Deakin University
  • Psychiatric Genetics – Dr Sarah Cohen-Woods, Flinders University


We acknowledge the generous support of the following funding agencies:

  • National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)
  • NHMRC National Institute for Dementia Research (NNIDR)
  • Australian Research Council (ARC)
  • Yulgilbar Foundation
  • Financial Markets for Children Foundation
  • Equity Trustees, Preston and Loui Geduld Trust Fund
  • Agency National de la Recherche