Meet our researchers – Dr Stu Fillman

Meet our researchers – Dr Stu Fillman

Stu Fillman (pictured) is confident that the results of the most recent research to come out of the  Schizophrenia Research Laboratory* in Randwick can soon offer hope to people with schizophrenia and their families. The study, which found elevated inflammatory markers in the brains of around 40 percent of people with schizophrenia, could help to identify a particular subtype of schizophrenia. These biomarkers could also be crucial in identifying people with schizophrenia earlier, which often leads to improved treatment outcomes, and could help outline the best type of treatment for this subtype.

“There is certainly heterogeneity in schizophrenia,” says Stu, “which means that there are different types of schizophrenia, although ultimately they all present in a very similar way, such as with feelings of paranoia or the presentation of delusions as well as cognitive and emotional issues. If we are able to use the information from this research to identify individuals with this immune subtype, we could create a targeted treatment and intervene earlier, which would ultimately lead to better outcomes.”

Stu moved to Australia from Canada in 2009 to commence his PhD at the University of New South Wales and work as part of the Schizophrenia Research Lab under Prof. Cyndi Shannon Weickert. He completed his PhD in January and has since been working on exploring the area of immune response in people with schizophrenia, which allows him to combine his interests in both biology and neuroscience.

“I was interested in psychology, in particular psychiatric diagnosis, but also in biology,” Stu explains of what led him to schizophrenia research. “I wanted to understand the mechanism of how things worked and how particular diseases, such as schizophrenia, developed. It’s a very difficult disease and very debilitating and we’ve yet to work out the best treatments for it. We have reasonably effective treatments for depression but not yet for schizophrenia so, for me, this presents an opportunity to really make a difference.”

When he’s not in the lab, Stu spends time at Coogee beach in Sydney as part of their Surf Life Saving Club and attending local and national life saving competitions. While living in Canada and studying at McMaster University he was the head coach of their lifesaving team and officiated at several lifeguard championships. Once he moved to Australia, the lure of the beach was too strong to ignore. “Sydney really is known for its fantastic beaches,” he admits. “And Surf Lifesaving was a great intersect between what I used to do in Canada and my life here in Australia. It was a natural step to take.”

As for the future of schizophrenia research, Stu is excited about the new avenues that are opening up with regards to identifying further subtypes of schizophrenia and the opportunities for improved treatments. “I think in the next few years the work we’re doing with biomarkers will present us with opportunities to make a difference to the lives of people living with schizophrenia.”

If you would like to support our scientists as they find ways to understand, better treat, prevent and cure schizophrenia, please consider donating. A regular gift of just $5 a month will help them to achieve their goals, but you are free to find others ways to support our scientists.

 

*The Schizophrenia Research Laboratory is a joint initiative of the Schizophrenia Research Institute, Nerouscience Research Australia (NeuRA), the University of New South Wales and Macquarie Group Foundation. It is supported by the NSW Ministry of Health.

Social withdrawal and schizophrenia

Social withdrawal and schizophrenia

A new study finds that adults with schizophrenia who keep to themselves often did so as children, but that social skills training can be an effective way to overcome any difficulties presented by socialising with others.

If you’re feeling alone, you’re not alone. That’s one of the key messages that Institute-supported researcher Sandra Matheson (pictured) wants people to take from her meta-analysis of social withdrawal and schizophrenia that was published recently in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. The report, which compared six studies that looked at childhood social withdrawal in adults with schizophrenia and in at-risk children aged 9-14 years, found that childhood social withdrawal in combination with three potential markers of schizophrenia risk – delay in speech or motor development, presence of psychotic-like experiences, and social, emotional or behavioural problems – was an indicator of vulnerability for schizophrenia.

“That’s not to say that children who are shy, or don’t have a lot of friends or don’t play well are going to develop schizophrenia later in life,” Ms Matheson points out. “What the results of the study tell us is that adults with schizophrenia who are socially withdrawn, quite likely displayed those same attributes when they were children and that not wanting to socialise with others is a common occurrence in people with schizophrenia.”

The study considered socially withdrawn children to be those who frequently refrained from joining in social activities with their friends and was measured by using the Childhood Behavioural Checklist, which is a widely-used psychological questionnaire that assesses a number of behaviours and is filled out by either parents, teachers or the child themselves.

The encouraging news from the study is that children who scored high on the Child Behaviour Checklist for social withdrawal who also received an intervention such as social skills training were able to modify or overcome their tendency to withdraw. “Helping a child to overcome any difficulties they may experience –whether it’s learning to play a sport to improve motor skills, developing better social skills or sorting out any behavioural problems – is going to be of benefit, whether the child develops schizophrenia or not,” says Ms Matheson.

Children with at least one first- or second-degree relative (ie. parent, sibling, or aunt, uncle) with schizophrenia or schizo-affective disorder were not considered by the study to be as vulnerable to developing schizophrenia as children who displayed the three risk markers mentioned earlier, but were more vulnerable than children who were considered to be typically developing.

Previous studies have found that social skills competency in people with schizophrenia is associated with better role functioning in the community and predicts positive vocational functioning, regardless of cognitive abilities, and that social skills training is an effective way to improve social interactions.

If you would like to support our scientists as they find ways to understand, better treat, prevent and cure schizophrenia, please consider donating. A regular gift of just $5 a month will help them to achieve their goals, but you are free to find others ways to support our scientists.

What is social skills training?

What is social skills training?

Social or interpersonal skills deficits commonly prevent some people with schizophrenia from integrating within the community and living a satisfying life. The goal of social skills training is to equip people with the confidence to navigate this area of life by teaching exercises such as making a request, listening to other people and the importance of eye contact or reaching a solution with others. Classes may also cover practicals skills such as making a meal, managing money or workplace skills.

Social skills training breaks down each task into manageable steps and offers opportunities for participants to practice and build on the skills – a bit like learning to dance. These programs can be organised through a day-centre unit, attended by people in either hospitals or the community, on an individual basis or in a group setting.

 

What is the evidence supporting the use of social skills programs?

High quality evidence shows a large benefit of social skills training for improving social interactions (particularly for inpatients), as well as some benefit for community function, symptom improvement, particularly negative symptoms, and for reduced relapse rates.

Moderate quality evidence shows a medium to large benefit of social cognitive skills programs for improving emotion perception and Theory of Mind capacities, particularly for those with longer illness durations.

 

Read about our study here.

For more information, visit www.schizophreniaresearch.org.au/library

Schizophrenia paper one of the most highly cited

Schizophrenia paper one of the most highly cited

Congratulations to Dr Rebbekah Atkinson, Professor Pat Michie and Professor Ulrich Schall (pictured) at the University of Newcastle, whose paper, which was published in Biological Psychiatry last year, was one of the most highly cited papers for 2012.

Their research found two potential markers that could identify people who are at risk of developing a psychotic illness such as schizophrenia, which could lead to an early intervention, the benefit of which includes an increased chance of successful long-term treatments.

Mismatch negativity and P3a are measures of how people process auditory cues and the research conducted by Dr Atkinson indicates that a reduction in the ability to detect changes in auditory signals may be an accurate marker of someone at risk of developing a psychotic disorder.

Other researchers clearly found these results to be of significant interest, leading to the paper being cited so often throughout the year. As a result, Dr Atkinson and Profs Michie and Schall have been invited by Biological Psychiatry to write an in-depth review of the topic of using mismatch negativity and P3a as markers for psychosis, for use in the wider scientific community. This is an exciting achievement and shows that our scientists are on a promising research pathway.

 

If you would like to support our scientists as they find ways to understand, better treat, prevent and cure schizophrenia, please consider donating. A regular gift of just $5 a month will help them to achieve their goals, but you are free to find others ways to support our scientists.

Meet our researchers – Dr Renate Thienel

Meet our researchers – Dr Renate Thienel

Moving from Dusseldorf, Germany, to Orange in New South Wales was a huge change for Renate Thienel, who undertook the long journey in 2007. But it was a move made for the love of science and a desire to continue her research.

After completing the German equivalent of the HSC, Renate worked for a time in a psychiatric ward where she provided social services for people with psychosis and developed a passion for understanding more about schizophrenia. She went on to study psychology, completing her Masters and PhD in the discipline, and explored the differences in auditory discrimination between people with and without schizophrenia.

Now based in Newcastle and completing her post-doctoral fellowship with the Cognitive Neuroscience team at the Hunter Medical Research Institute, Renate’s focus is primarily on collecting data on the development of mismatch negativity (MMN) in 100 people between the ages of five and 25. MMN is assessed by presenting the subject with a series of identical stimuli, in this case sound delivered via headphones, that are occasionally interspersed with other sounds that are slightly different in tone, duration or frequency to assess how well they are able to make out the change in pattern. Typically, for people with schizophrenia, a change to duration or frequency is difficult to distinguish, which makes measuring MMN a reliable predictor of behavioural symptoms that could indicate a transition to psychosis.

Renate hopes that by measuring MMN in young people without schizophrenia, she will be able to better understand how this brain process changes as a child grows into adolescence and adulthood and share this knowledge with other scientists who can use it as a reference to compare normal responses with those considered at high risk of developing a psychotic disorder. “It’s good to be able to provide other researchers with a normative database,” she says, “so they can compare normal to ultra-high risk. The data will provide a whole picture of how healthy development occurs.”

As to the outcomes of her research Renate says she would like to see it contribute to the early prediction and prevention of schizophrenia and for it to improve current treatments.

Renate’s other big dream is to enable people with schizophrenia to train and activate their brains in a more efficient and effective way, particularly the areas that have been under active. “I have contacts with researchers who are conducting so-called realtime fMRI-neurofeedback studies in Germany and I would like to do something similar here,” she says. “We have a new state-of-the-art Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scanner due to arrive in October, which will be optimised for the fast imaging required in realtime fMRI-neurofeedback, which would enable us to do this.” Improving cognitive function would come as a relief to many people with schizophrenia and is an idea the Institute is excited to pursue.

Dr Thienel needs your support in her search to find a cure for schizophrenia and improve current treatments for schizophrenia. Please donate here or press the yellow button at the top right of the page or feel free to find others ways to support our scientists.

A promising new target for schizophrenia drug therapy

A promising new target for schizophrenia drug therapy

Wollongong scientist, Natalie Matosin (pictured left), has collated studies on a brain receptor and found promising information that points to a new, better drug therapy that will target more than just hallucinations and delusions.

A review of research papers from around the world has turned up hope for a new class of therapeutic drugs that would treat not just the positive symptoms of schizophrenia but the negative and cognitive symptoms as well.

Natalie Matosin, a PhD candidate who is working under the guidance of Dr Kelly Newell, took on the demanding task of reviewing papers that examine the role and function of a receptor in the brain and its relationship to schizophrenia, which has provided direction for future studies to be undertaken by the Institute-supported Newell lab in Wollongong.

The findings, which were published recently in the journal of Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, showed that when the receptor, known as metabotropic glutamate receptor 5, or mGluR5, is knocked out or masked in animal models they display schizophrenia-like symptoms such as difficulties with learning, memory and sensory gating, which is the ability to filter out unnecessary information from the immediate environment. This may indicate that if drugs were to bind to this receptor and improve its functioning, symptoms such as disordered thinking caused by poor sensory gating, depression, feelings of isolation and poor memory may be improved in people with schizophrenia.

Natalie, who has been studying mGluR5 since her Honours year, says the possibility of using the receptor as a target for new therapeutic drugs is very interesting because current antipsychotics mainly affect the positive symptoms of the illness and do little for the negative and cognitive symptom profiles. “Studies have shown that when you use mGluR5-targeting drugs in animal models of schizophrenia, both cognition and memory are improved,” she says.

The next step, Natalie explains, is for the Newell lab to investigate possible changes to mGluR5 in the schizophrenia brain and what might be the best way to pharmacologically manipulate the receptor. Based on these findings the team will build support for their use to help them reach clinical trial where people with schizophrenia could access them.

There are currently drugs that target mGluR5 that have reached the clinical stage for treating depression, but not yet for schizophrenia. The research that is currently occurring in Wollongong, however, is building up a body of knowledge that will advance our understanding of this receptor’s role in schizophrenia and how, soon, we might develop treatments with decreased side effects that can improve all three symptom categories of schizophrenia.

 

To support Natalie Matosin in her search to find a cure for schizophrenia and improve current treatments, please consider donating here or press the yellow button at the top right of the page, but you are free to find others ways to support our scientists.

Meet our researchers – Dr Alessandra Raudino

Meet our researchers – Dr Alessandra Raudino

It comes as no surprise that someone who loves exploring new horizons when she travels was keen to be involved in a study with an incredibly broad scope. Alessandra Raudino, a Sicilian by birth who has also lived in Budapest, Reading, and Christchurch moved to Sydney in 2011 to take up the role of Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the NSW Child Development Study as part of the research unit for Schizophrenia Epidemiology.

The longitudinal study will span 20 years and follow 87,000 children based in New South Wales from the time they are born until they leave their teenage years. “The study investigates risk and resilience factors for mental health and other adverse social outcomes in later years,” Alessandra explains.

Alessandra’s previous experience in psychology has seen her working in a Hungarian orphanage as well as a school for special needs and studying children’s internalising and externalising problems, so working with the Schizophrenia Research Institute on the study has allowed her to continue to explore her interest in child development and welfare.

What most excites Alessandra about her current work is the size of the study and its possible implications. “Other studies of a similar nature involve maybe 1500 children, but this study is a population level study,” she explains, “which will give us the opportunity to work at the policy level and inform the government about intervention and prevention.

“Next year we will do a state-wide cross-sectional assessment that looks at behaviour, social adjustment, creativity, self-esteem and physical health and try to link that with record linkage data. My ultimate hope is that this information combined will help us find ways to improve the quality of life and reduce the burden of mental illness, to produce real, tangible change.”

When she’s not busy organising ethics and grant applications and writing reports for scientific committees, Alessandra relaxes by cooking (though she won’t reveal her secret family recipe for parmigiana) and planning her next overseas adventure to India. As always, the lure of a vast, new territory holds great appeal for Alessandra.

To support Dr Raudino in her search to find a cure for schizophrenia and improve current treatments for schizophrenia, please consider donating here or press the yellow button at the top right of the page. If this doesn’t suit, you are free to find others ways to support our scientists.

Meet our researchers – Peta Snikeris

Meet our researchers – Peta Snikeris

As a schoolgirl growing up in Wollongong, Peta Snikeris was always curious about things around her. ”I was always asking questions and trying to understand how everything and everyone worked,” she recalls. So it’s no surprise that Peta took up research as the best way to find the answers to all her questions.

Her natural curiosity has become her job. Peta likes working on the unknown; asking research questions for which there are no answers – yet.  “I feel like each day I get to work and try to figure out another piece of a great big puzzle,” she says. Her work in helping to put those pieces into place supports her goal to gain a greater understanding of the brain and schizophrenia.

Peta started her research in the field of immunology but her interest in how the brain works led her to combine the two areas and investigate the role the immune system might play in schizophrenia.

Her current project is looking at whether a mutation in a gene that makes people vulnerable to schizophrenia can also change how their immune system will respond. “I’m specifically looking at whether these immune system changes are evident in the brain as well as in the rest of the body”.

Ultimately Peta wants to work in another area of research that has a close association with schizophrenia – suicide. She would like to examine the neurobiology and neuroimmunology of suicide.

She believes the topic remains taboo in society and more needs to be done to educate the community that people with psychiatric illness who contemplate suicide are not selfish or simply seeking an ‘easy way out’.

As well as meeting her busy research schedule, Peta is also a tutor at Wollongong University which means she has to plan her routine and balance her life around spending time with family and friends while fulfilling her passion for asking questions and finding answers.

To support Peta Snkieris in her search to find a cure for schizophrenia and improve current treatments for schizophrenia, please donate here or press the yellow button at the top right of the page.

New Institute research initiatives

New Institute research initiatives

The latest round of projects to be funded by the Institute was announced yesterday, which will partly inform the direction of the Institute’s research in the coming years. Congratulations to the successful applicants!

Epistatic genetic effects on neuroanatomical subtypes of schizophrenia
Melissa Green (pictured, above), Alana Shepherd, Ian Gould, Kristin Laurens, Murray Cairns, Assen Jablensky, Vaughan Carr ($39,969)

Neurobiology of cortical thinning in schizophrenia
Vibeke Catts, Cynthia Shannon Weickert, Kelly Newell, Yiru Zhang, Natalie Matosin ($16,100)

The effects of cannabis and lifestyle choices on the development of schizophrenia: A preclinical perspective
Tim Karl, Cyndi Shannon Weickert, Leonora Long, JonathonArnold, Linda Bergersen,
Margart Morris, Herbert Herzog, Xu Feng Huang ($18,000)

Investigation of Metabotropic Glutamate Receptor 5 Gene GRM5 polymorphisms in the genetic vulnerability of schizophrenia
Natalie Matosin, Francesca Fernandez, Kelly Newell ($3,480)

Carving psychosis at its biological joints
Melissa Green, Alana Shepherd, Yann Quide, Leah Girshkin, Kristin Laurens, Vaughan Carr, Peter Schofield

Epigenetics and Schizophrenia: Is Lingo‐1 Involved?
Jessica Andrews, Francesca Fernandez, Natalie Colson ($3,316)

The neuroanatomy of auditory verbal hallucinations: Determining brain phenotypes for genetic investigation
Melissa Green, Simon McCarthy‐Jones, Alana Shepherd

The role of sialyltransferase 8B in brain structural changes in schizophrenia
Jan Fullerton, Alex Shaw

The effects of cannabis and lifestyle choices on the development of schizophrenia: A preclinical
perspective
Tim Karl, Cyndi Shannon Weickert, Leonora Long, Jonathon Arnold, Linda Bergersen,
Margart Morris, Herbert Herzog, Xu Feng Huang

Investigation of Anti‐Lingo‐1 as an emergent actor in the therapy for schizophrenia
Francesca Fernandez‐Enright, Kelly Newell, Jessica Andrews ($9,813)

Meet our researchers – Felicity Harris

Meet our researchers – Felicity Harris

It was Felicity Harris’s vision of a better future for people struggling with mental health that led her to start work with the Schizophrenia Research Institute in early 2008. Previous to this she had been working as an intern psychologist in Mount Isa but a desire to be with her family and to further her interest in the area of psychosis drew her to the position of project officer working on the New South Wales Child Development Study in Newcastle.

The epidemiological study will follow 87,000 children from birth to adolescence and link factors such as education, mental, physical and emotional health, childhood experiences and social development to identify vulnerability and resilience factors that may be related to health and wellbeing outcomes, including the onset of mental illnesses in adolescence such as schizophrenia.

This is a groundbreaking study that is unique in Australia and is designed to bring together records and information held by a variety of institutions in order to create a more complete picture of our community, thus part of Ms Harris’s job as research assistant is to identify and develop the processes by which this can be achieved. “Linking databases is an incredibly important part of this study,” Ms Harris says, “so I assist in identifying who holds this information, who has access to it, how we might go about getting it and contributing to the ethics applications. There’s a lot of investigative work involved.”

Fortunately, as she approaches the various institutions to explain the aims and goals of the study, Ms Harris is often met with support. “People are incredibly receptive to what we want to do,” she explains. Indeed, Ms Harris’ own hopes for the future of schizophrenia research dovetails nicely with the study’s aims.  “Current treatments alleviate symptoms such as psychoses,” she says, “but don’t provide quality of life. I would like to see treatments that are more sustainable for people who have already been diagnosed and for us to identify the risk and resiliency factors that contribute to the onset of schizophrenia so that early intervention to reduce the likelihood of schizophrenia’s development might be possible.”

In 2012 Ms Harris completed her Masters degree in Clinical Epidemiology and is considering starting a PhD in the next year or two, but for the time being she is enjoying the many challenges that come with her job and working towards a brighter future for people with mental health issues. “I love what I’m doing at the Institute because I’m contributing to something I believe in,” she says. “I’m intellectually stimulated and the work is so varied that I’m constantly learning and being challenged.”

Want to meet more of the Institute’s scientists and find out what they’re working on? To read about a mum of three finding ways to improve current drug treatments – click here.

Curious to know how mismatch negativity can predict a transition to schizophrenia? Click here.

To support Felicity Harris in her search to find a cure for schizophrenia and improve current treatments for schizophrenia, please donate here or press the yellow button at the top right of the page.