Research Higher Degree Projects

Objectively-measured impairments in cognition, including both neurocognition and social cognition, are observed in most mental illnesses and evidence suggests they are present early, even before the onset of full-threshold diagnosis. The evidence for these findings is most developed in psychotic disorders, in which cognitive impairment is considered a core feature of the illness. This research has underscored the important moderating role of cognition on the recovery and functional outcomes of people with psychosis, and to a lesser degree other mental illnesses, and has identified cognition as an important target for early intervention. An alternative contemporary approach to understanding psychiatric illness is the trans-diagnostic model, which attempts to understand mental ill-health outside the 'man-made' nosology of psychiatric syndromes (such as those in the DSM) and be informed instead by 'nature-led' observations.

We are currently offering research higher degree projects in the following areas:

  • Heart disease and psychosis
  • Phenomenology and neurocognitive dysfunction in psychosis
  • Stress and psychosis
  • Trauma and first-episode psychosis
  • Anxiety and schizophrenia
  • Depression in young people
  • Cognitive biomarkers in youth mental illness
  • Ultra high risk for psychosis

Explaining the elevated risk for heart disease in young people with psychosis

This is a treatment study of young people with psychosis. The project focuses on risk factors for heart disease in people aged between 16–25 years at their entry to a psychosis treatment centre, and tracks change in these risk factors after initiation of treatment with antipsychotic drugs. Skills acquired by conducting this work will include learning how to analyse data collected from a specialised psychosis treatment centre with a focus on the adverse physical health side effects of psychotropic drugs, prescribed medication and other drug use histories. An opportunity exists for a highly motivated student who is interested in youth mental health and its relationship to physical health outcomes to work on a data analysis project under the supervision of Dr Debra Foley from the Applied Genetics Unit at Orygen Youth Health Research Centre and the Centre for Youth Mental Health, University of Melbourne. Other Orygen based investigators associated with the project include Professor Andrew Mackinnon.

Contact for more information: Dr Debra Foley

Dr Debra Foley profile

Self disturbance and vulnerability to psychosis: Linking phenomenology and neurocognition in early psychosis

Phenomenological research indicates that disturbance of the basic sense of self may be a core phenotypic marker of schizophrenia spectrum disorders. Basic self-disturbance refers to a disruption of the sense of ownership of experience and agency of action and is associated with a variety of anomalous subjective experiences. In this study, we will investigate the neurocognitive correlates of basic self disturbance using an "ultra high risk" for psychosis sample, a "first episode psychosis" sample and a clinical control group. The results of this study may help us to understand the underlying neurocognitive mechanisms associated with the core phenomenology of schizophrenia spectrum conditions.

Contact for more information: A/Prof Barnaby Nelson

A/Prof Barnaby Nelson profile

The relationship between biological and subjective measures of stress and psychiatric symptoms in an ultra-high risk for psychosis cohort

Researchers have hypothesised that stress plays an important role in the onset and maintenance of psychotic disorders. The ultra-high risk (UHR) for psychosis population is a valuable population in which to investigate the relationship between these variables. The current study is a cross-sectional investigation of the relationship between biological measures of stress (salivary cortisol measures), subjective experience of stressful events, and psychiatric symptoms in a UHR cohort at the PACE clinic, Orygen Youth Health. It is hypothesised that there will be a positive relationship between biological and subjective measures of stress and that both of these variables will be positively correlated with general psychiatric symptoms.

Contact for more information: A/Prof Barnaby Nelson

A/Prof Barnaby Nelson profile

Trauma, youth mental health, and clinical staging

We are currently planning research into childhood trauma and youth mental health. Childhood trauma, including sexual and physical abuse and bullying, leads to a variety of poor psychiatric and functional outcomes in young people. These include depression, anxiety, alcohol and other drug abuse and dependence, suicide, and psychosis. Multiple diagnoses are the norm rather than the exception in young people who have experienced childhood trauma. Trauma leads to a variety of biological (e.g., stress responsivity), social (lack of interpersonal trust) and psychological (e.g., the development of early maladaptive schemas) outcomes that in turn lead to symptoms and functional difficulties. Our traditional diagnostic systems have obscured the centrality of trauma to many young people presenting to mental health services by focusing on the presenting symptoms. The clinical staging model of mental disorder may be able to cast light onto childhood trauma as an issue central to early intervention in youth mental health. The staging models highlights where a person lies currently along the continuum of the course of an illness, with earlier stages having less differentiated symptomatology. It also focuses on what risk factors may contribute to the development of more severe (ie. later stage) distress. A long-term goal of this work is the exploration of childhood trauma as a risk factor for transition to a more severe stage of illness and the development of trauma-focused interventions that aim to prevent such transition. But the first questions we should ask may be much more simple: What do traumatised young people and their families believe they need from mental health and/or youth services? How do clinicians and other professionals working with young people most appropriately ask about the experience of trauma? What do the clinicians and other professionals who work with traumatised young people say they need to help them deliver engaging and effective treatments? We are currently developing research projects to explore these questions and Masters and PhD projects are available.

Contact for more information: Dr Sarah Bendall

Dr Sarah Bendall profile

Investigating the relationship amongst trauma, post-traumatic sequelae, cognition, and functioning in first episode psychosis: What should be our targets for therapeutic interventions?

We are currently conducting a research study investigating the mechanisms by which traumatic experiences confer a risk for psychosis. We are assessing young people with first episode psychosis for past trauma, psychotic symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociation, and cognitive mechanisms that have been theorised to underlie the relationships amongst trauma, the above trauma sequelae and psychotic symptoms. Such mechanisms include early maladaptive schemas, external source misattributions and selective attention. Further, we are interested in the impact on these variables on the functioning of young people with trauma and psychosis. This project involves the assessment of a cohort of young people with FEP at EPPIC. There are several Masters and PhD projects available within this project including: the use of experience sampling to explore the temporal relationship between intrusive symptoms and hallucinations; a qualitative exploration of the phenomenological similarities and differences between post-traumatic intrusions and hallucinations and delusions; a longitudinal follow-up of the cohort.

Contact for more information: Dr Sarah Bendall

Dr Sarah Bendall profile

Anxiety symptoms and disorders in schizophrenia

Anxiety disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social phobia are prevalent in patients with schizophrenia. Further, it has been argued that anxiety symptoms may be an inherent characteristic of schizophrenia. However, the nature and characteristics of anxiety in patients with first-episode schizophrenia are poorly understood. Thus, the aim of this project will be to determine the prevalence, characteristics and stability of anxiety (symptoms and disorder) in patients with first-episode schizophrenia. The psychometric properties of measures of anxiety will also be examined. The student will develop an understanding of the issue of comorbidity in schizophrenia as well as an appreciation of measurement issues in psychiatry.

Contact for more information: A/Prof Sue Cotton

Dr Sue Cotton profile

Improving the management of depression in young people

While clinical practice guidelines exist for the management of depression in young people, implementation of the recommended treatments has resulted in more modest treatment outcomes than seen in efficacy trials. We are undertaking a suite of research aimed to further develop the evidence base in order to improve treatment outcomes; and to decrease barriers clinicians face in implementing current recommendations. This includes testing of the components parts of CBT (monitoring, cognitive approaches and behavioural approaches) to enhance the efficacy of this treatment and allow more specific targeting of component parts to specific populations; as well as development and testing of lifestyle interventions for more mild presentations of depression. As part of this research program we are investigating the hypothesised mechanisms of action in order to more fully understand how it is that interventions for youth depression work to facilitate symptom improvement. Within this program of research there are numerous opportunities, including the development of high quality systematic reviews.

Contact for more information: Dr Sarah Hetrick

Trans-diagnostic research of cognitive biomarkers in youth mental illness

Objectively-measured impairments in cognition, including both neurocognition and social cognition, are observed in most mental illnesses and evidence suggests they are present early, even before the onset of full-threshold diagnosis. The evidence for these findings is most developed in psychotic disorders, in which cognitive impairment is considered a core feature of the illness. This research has underscored the important moderating role of cognition on the recovery and functional outcomes of people with psychosis, and to a lesser degree other mental illnesses, and has identified cognition as an important target for early intervention. An alternative contemporary approach to understanding psychiatric illness is the trans-diagnostic model, which attempts to understand mental ill-health outside the 'man-made' nosology of psychiatric syndromes (such as those in the DSM) and be informed instead by 'nature-led' observations.

Contact for more information: Dr Kelly Allott

Dr Kelly Allott profile

Brain electrophysiological activity measured in individuals at ultra high risk for psychosis compared to controls 

Individuals at ultra high risk (UHR) to develop psychosis present with attenuated psychotic symptoms, brief limited psychotic symptoms or possess a key risk factor (e.g., schizotypal personality disorder, first degree relative with psychosis) along with a drop in psychosocial functioning. The present study aims to compare electroencephalography (EEG) components measured in UHR individuals to a control group. The EEG is a powerful tool used as an objective measurement of brain functioning. This important study will enable us to determine the impairments already present during the early stage of psychotic illnesses and possibly improve the set of criteria defining the UHR population. The data have already been collected for this project and the participation of honours students is sought for data processing and analysing. Student authorship is guaranteed in any publications resulting from this project, with authorship ranking being negotiable and based on relative contribution of authors.

Contact for more information: Dr Suzie Lavoie