Mental illness – understanding the risk, targeting the treatment

Mental disorders account for approximately one third of the top 25 causes of years lived with disability, and cost the Australian economy billions of dollars each year.

To develop more effective treatments, we need to understand the biological mechanisms of risk for mental illness. This task has proven challenging, because many different psychiatric disorders show substantial overlap in terms of their symptoms and underlying biology.

Thanks to the award of a 2017 NHMRC Project Grant, MICCN’s Associate Professor Alex Fornito and team are set to identify a new, empirically and biologically grounded model of risk for mental illness that aims to clarify mechanisms of disease risk for a wide range of different psychiatric disorders.

The study will involve comprehensive behavioural, brain imaging and genome-wide profiling of over 1,000 people to help map and model the biological underpinnings of psychopathology.

The team will map the brain systems that underlie individual differences in behaviours related to mental illness; model how genetic risk for mental disorders drives variation in these behaviours; and map how this genetic risk is expressed through brain function.

“A lot of research, including our own, has concentrated on understanding the genetic, neural and behavioural basis of risk for specific psychiatric disorders, but developing robust biological markers of disease risk is difficult,” Associate Professor Fornito said. “This grant will enable us to comprehensively understand the overlap and differences between risk mechanisms for different forms of mental illness, from depression and anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia. We hope that this work will shed light on how people develop different forms of mental illness and, ultimately, guide the development of more targeted and effective treatments.”

MICCN congratulates Associate Professor Fornito on his success, and looks forward to reporting the positive impacts of the team’s work.

For more information on Associate Professor Alex Fornito’s research, please contact him on t: 03 9902 9796, e:

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