Key Role in Global Genetics Study

The Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank has played a key role in a global study that investigated genetic variants associated with schizophrenia. The study replicated findings from previous genetic research and made new discoveries.

This is the Bank’s first contribution to an international study, which involved over 51,000 individuals, and marks an important step, as one of the new genetic discoveries may be implicated in contributing to particular brain abnormalities in schizophrenia. When cases of bipolar disorder were added to the study sample some genetic findings indicated shared genetic susceptibility for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The study by the Schizophrenia Psychiatric Genome-Wide Association Study Consortium used blood samples from a large number of international projects, including the Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank, and is published in Nature Genetics. The findings identified five genomic loci that are newly associated with schizophrenia and confirmed two genomic loci previously identified in schizophrenia.

“Our involvement in this global replication study is a first for the Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank, and one that marks the beginning of a more extensive contribution to the international research community,” said Prof. Vaughan Carr, CEO of the Schizophrenia Research Institute.

The Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank was established to provide researchers with a unique set of data including blood samples, brain scans and clinical information to further research into schizophrenia within Australia and across the world.

“As the Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank continues to grow, the scientists and clinicians at the Schizophrenia Research Institute, along with our colleagues and affiliates in other institutes and organisations across the globe, are realising the significance of having access to such a valuable resource as this.” Prof. Carr said.

Appointment to International Forum

The Institute’s Professor Cyndi Shannon Weickert, Macquarie Group Foundation Chair of Schizophrenia Research, has been announced as the first Australian woman to be appointed to the Scientific Advisory Board of the international online Schizophrenia Research Forum.

The forum is a key online resource for the schizophrenia research community, designed to foster international collaboration and share research news to help in the search for causes, treatments, and understanding of schizophrenia. Professor Shannon Weickert is one of only a handful of international experts appointed as an advisor for this international online community.

Click here to visit the forum

Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank Now Open to International Researchers

The Institute’s Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank is the biggest research resource of its type ever undertaken in Australia.

The data provided by all of our Bank volunteers is now able to be used by researchers across Australia for research and analysis. This resource has already supported a variety of studies into schizophrenia. From 1 July this year, international researchers and commercial entities are able to apply to use the data and recruit volunteers.

The Bank provides access to the de-identified medical and cognitive performance, genetic samples, and brain scans of people with schizophrenia, as well as a healthy control group. Participants are also able to volunteer to be contacted for future research projects.

The volunteers who participate in this project are key contributors to a research resource which may provide researchers with a unique breakthrough.

Although more volunteers are needed, and recruitment is ongoing, the Bank is now reaching its goal to provide researchers with access to a large, high quality dataset to support schizophrenia research.

Institute Joins AAMRI

The Institute is now a member of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI), the peak body that represents medical research institutes.

AAMRI recognises that institutes such as the Schizophrenia Research Institute are a key component of Australia’s health and education systems.

As a member institute, we are able to take part in greater scientific and administrative collaboration, which will help us continue to grow our research agenda and funding.

Putting Our Heads Together

The Institute holds regular research summits that bring together our scientists from each of our principal research areas – Developmental Neurobiology, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Epidemiology and Population Health.

As a virtual medical research institute,by our very nature we have the unique ability to draw from a wide pool of research knowledge, leveraging all of the remarkable work that is being done across Australia in the field of schizophrenia research.

The summits provide an important opportunity for these researchers from various centres to meet in person, discuss recent advances in research, and plan for upcoming collaborative ventures. This allows us to continue to grow ourresearch agenda, and helps to nurture early career researchers, as they can obtain feedback and guidance from senior colleagues in their research area.

As well as contributing to ongoing investigation into schizophrenia and its treatments, these meetings also encourage scientists to take a step back and consider how the individual studies conducted at various universities and institutes from a wide range of scientific domains fit together in the ‘bigger picture’ of schizophrenia research.

Meet Our Researcher

Dr. Samantha Fung is a Research Officer at the Schizophrenia Research Laboratory




Q. What research are you currently involved with? 
A. Although there is uncertainty about what may be the main pathology in schizophrenia, research suggests that the inhibitory circuitry in the brain is not functioning properly. In my research at the Schizophrenia Research Laboratory I study the inhibitory neurons (which are key to how these circuits develop), to give us clues as to why this system might not be working properly in schizophrenia.

Q. What has been the greatest challenge of this work? 
A. Schizophrenia is a challenging illness to study as it presents with different symptoms that can vary between individuals. Identifying different pathologies has the potential advantage of being able to customise more effective treatments for patients.

Q. Where does your work fit in the larger schizophrenia research picture? 
A. In the long term, I hope that this research will be able to be translated into more effective therapies for individuals with schizophrenia by identifying which cell types are most affected in schizophrenia and how we may enhance the function of affected cells, or even encourage new cells into these circuits.

Q. Why schizophrenia research?
A. I have always been particularly interested in the development of the brain: how cells get to where they need to be and how they interact with other cells. In the brains of people with schizophrenia we think the development of the brain has somehow been derailed, and this may lead to circuits being improperly wired. We are in an exciting era where we are seeing many more molecular clues as to how the cellular communication may be broken in the illness.

Q. What do you find most fulfilling about the work? 
A. I like the challenge of using the little clues that we know about schizophrenia to ask new questions, and trying to find a way to answer them. It’s exciting to know that you are making discoveries and about how different systems fit with each other, and we are helping to build a picture of what might be going wrong in the brain of someone with schizophrenia, which is key to finding new and effective ways to help these people.

Minds in Transition – Growing up is not always easy

Institute scientist, Professor Ulrich Schall from the University of Newcastle is leading the five-year Minds in Transition (MinT) study, a project that investigates why young people transition from an ‘at-risk mental state’ to a first episode of psychosis.

During the years of adolescence and early adulthood, young people are particularly vulnerable to experiencing some of the early warning signs of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses – and it may be that during this time the onset of psychoses first occurs.

MinT will investigate the early signs of the later emerging illness, such as experiencing difficulties at school for the first time, withdrawing from social or fun activities, lacking energy or motivation, and having strange thoughts and ideas. These early signs will be examined as to how they develop over time, and what factors may promote or prevent a transition from ‘at-risk mental state’ to schizophrenia.

“An at-risk mental state is not a clinical diagnosis, it refers to a combination of factors such as family history of mental illness and a negative change in well-being and everyday functioning,” Professor Schall said.

“While most study participants will not necessarily develop schizophrenia, it is anticipated that up to 30% will develop some type of psychotic illness with about 10-15% going on to develop schizophrenia,”

“A primary aim of the study is to compare those who do develop a psychotic illness with the majority who do not. This information is crucial for developing strategies for preventive measures and early intervention,” he said.

Volunteers will undergo a variety of assessments, including MRI scans of the brain, providing a blood sample and EEG recordings, as well as a number of other clinical and psychological tests.

The project is being conducted in Newcastle, Orange and Sydney, and is recruiting young people aged 12 to 25 years from clinical centres and through the recently launched website.

Overcoming Weight Gain

Behavioural therapies, including nutritional counselling, have been found to be beneficial in both preventing and reducing weight gain during antipsychotic treatment for schizophrenia.

It is thought that this weight gain is due to a combination of several factors, such as the impact of antipsychotic medication on metabolism and unhealthy lifestyles.

Evidence suggests that there is significant benefit of behavioural therapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and nutritional counselling in preventing and overcoming this weight gain.

“Approximately half of all patients with schizophrenia treated with atypical antipsychotics become overweight or obese as a result of treatment. These medications can affect regions of the brain that regulate appetite and eating patterns,” said Institute scientist Professor Xu-Feng Huang from the University of Wollongong.

Institute Scientist, Xu Feng Huang from the University of Wollongong

And while antipsychotic medication is necessary to help manage schizophrenia, the weight gain that often accompanies the treatment can be alarming for the individual and their loved ones. Concerns may be held regarding quality of life, self-esteem and long-term health due to the increased rates of metabolic abnormalities, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other problems often associated with weight gain.

“We also know that an increase in weight is a strong predictor of non-compliance during antipsychotic treatment, and this is a primary hurdle for the treatment of schizophrenia,” Professor Huang said.

“Patients who don’t maintain their treatment are five times more likely to relapse, so it’s important that we discover ways to manage these side effects.” he said.

Behavioural therapies may be one way to help manage weight gain.

Research continues into a variety of strategies, including pharmacological and psychosocial interventions, to better manage and control weight gain.

Working to Improve Cognitive Performance

Professor Cyndi Shannon Weickert and her team at the Schizophrenia Research Laboratory* are continuing the Institute’s first clinical drug trial aiming to improve cognitive performance in people with schizophrenia.

“For many people with schizophrenia, one of the long-term issues is lack of employment and social isolation. Contributing to these functional deficits are problems with cognitive abilities, such as problem solving and communication,” said Prof. Shannon Weickert.

“If we can find a way to improve the cognitive performance of people with schizophrenia, then we may improve their day-to-day life and begin restoring their independence,” she said.

A group of 88 schizophrenia patients are participating, all of whom are on stable medication. The trial investigates the use of an existing hormone modulator, raloxifene, in these patients to see if their cognitive ability improves. Patients undertake symptom assessment, cognitive testing, brain scanning and blood tests to identify whether there are any improvements. Initial results suggest that the medicine is well tolerated and that compliance is good. We look forward to analysing the results of this trial in the second half of 2011.

Prof. Shannon Weickert is largely driven by her own personal experiences as she watched twin brother struggle with schizophrenia. She is one of the few neurodevelopmental biologists in schizophrenia in the world. Her research over the past 20 years has focused on determining how normal brain development is changed in schizophrenia.

The Institute is holding its famous ‘Spark of Genius’ Gala event at Town Hall, Sydney on Friday 9th September 2011 to raise much needed funds for the Schizophrenia Research Laboratory.
For more information Click here.

*The Schizophrenia Research Laboratory is a joint initiative of the Schizophrenia Research Institute, University of NSW, Neuroscience Research Australia, and the Macquarie Group Foundation. It is supported by NSW Health.

The developing minds of children

The Institute is supporting a longitudinal study of child development to identify vulnerability and resilience factors at a population level that may be related to later onset of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia.

It is anticipated that if we can identify population patterns of vulnerability, as well as those of resilience and well-being, then in the longer term this may lead to the development of more effective, community-based early intervention and prevention programs.

The NSW Child Development Study will span twenty years, and follow the development of over 80,000 children from birth through childhood and adolescence by linking a number of existing databases. The key areas that the study will examine are emotion regulation, social behaviour, academic achievement and cognitive function, and physical health.

Dr Kristin Laurens (pictured, left) works with the Institute’s CEO Prof. Vaughan Carr, Chair of Schizophrenia Epidemiology and Population Health at the University of NSW and is highly experienced in establishing longitudinal child development studies.

Dr Laurens maintains a part-time position at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London in the UK, where she directs a program of research on early detection and intervention for schizophrenia and related disorders.

“I am excited to be back working in Australia on such an important project which will continue Australia’s reputation for innovative research at the forefront of early intervention and prevention for mental illness,” Dr Laurens said.

Her work both here and in the UK provides an unprecedented opportunity for the Institute to obtain access to data regarding child development and the factors preceding psychosis onset, which will provide invaluable research tools for years to come.

The team has been awarded significant funding by the Australian Research Council to support the first phase of this research.