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Lumen Winter 2015 Issue
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Predicting the course of mental illness

Professor Bernhard Baune

Professor Bernhard Baune
University of Adelaide researcher Professor Bernhard Baune’s work in mental illness is specifically looking at an alternative way to diagnose and treat patients with psychosis and depression.

With a focus on young people, Bernhard’s current work is looking at both clinical markers, (which include clinical symptoms, cognitive abilities and MRI scans) and biological markers in patients’ blood to predict the course an illness will take. His hope is that this will lead to earlier treatment options and better outcomes for patients.

"For a long time researchers have been looking at clinical markers to predict the onset, course or treatment of illnesses. So the question isn’t new, but we believe the answer will be new and different," Bernhard said.

As Head of Psychiatry at the University, his study is looking at the biology of mental illness, what is actually happening in the brain and if you can test this using biomarkers. If his theory is proven, the process would require a simple blood test followed by analysis to predict the course of the illness.

While psychosis and depression are different for each person, the illnesses tend to follow one of four courses ranging from one episode with full recovery through to an episode leading to severe permanent decline.

Currently, at the start of an illness everyone is treated in the same way. When the first signs of psychosis or depression occur, psychiatrists cannot predict which course the illness will take and treatment becomes reactive rather than preventative.

Bernhard says the onset of an illness is a critical period where multiple assessments need to be performed to predict what will happen in the future.

"Once you are in a better position to predict the course of the illness, you are in a better position to select the treatment."

The difficulty in this research is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of numbers and combinations of biomarkers. Psychosis and depression are complex illnesses and a single marker alone cannot provide a reliable diagnosis.

The research was made possible by funding from the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation, a private foundation established to foster excellence in the arts and medical research, and to support programs for youth at risk.

"We are grateful for their support which has enabled the identification of biomarkers and will also support the second step which is using these findings in clinical trials," Bernhard said.

Kerry de Lorme, General Manager of the Foundation, says they have a history of supporting youth at risk programs which led them to direct their medical research funding to youth mental health issues.

"We hope that through the support of the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation, Bernhard and his research team will produce key findings in predicting the course of mental illness, and as a result be able to provide early treatment options for the many young people suffering mental illness," said Kerry.

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Story by Renée Capps

If you need support or information around depression and anxiety, for yourself, a friend or family member, contact:
Beyond Blue
Telephone: 1300 22 4636


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