It is estimated that nearly 1 million Australians have an affective disorder and over 800,000 have an addictive or substance use disorder within a 12 month period (Source - Department of Health)
Research in this area combines neuroscience with clinical aspects of mood disorders, addictive disorders, and stress.
Hunter researchers in this team are investigating a relatively new hypothesis surrounding the development of depression and chronic stress which proposes that inflammation of brain cells may be responsible for altered neural functioning and thus symptoms of depression and mood disorders.
Many patients with conditions such as depression are commonly treated with drugs that alter the levels of important chemicals called neurotransmitters in the brain however they do not always work well and this is primarily because the mechanisms in the brain which underpin depression and many other affective disorders including chronic stress are poorly understood.
"As scientists we would like to design better medications but the major roadblock is that there is no solid understanding of the precise changes in the brain that lead to mood disorders" explains Associate Professor Rohan Walker to the University of Newcastle.
Research in this area also focuses on the co-morbidity of disorders, that is, how substance use and depression are often experienced together for example. Using interventions on the internet, over the phone and also in person, clinical researchers in this field utilise cognitive behavioural therapy to work towards changing peoples’ behaviours for the better.
These research methods have been applied to amphetamine use, smoking, alcohol misuse, cannabis use, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder with promising results for improving the mental health of people involved.
The predisposition to mental illness is also an area of interest for Hunter researchers in the HMRI Brain and Mental Health research group. Understanding how early life experiences, including during pregnancy, can alter development and the risk for mental illness later in life is a major research aim for this team.
"The only way we are going to change health trajectories is by understanding the basic determinants of disease processes. And, in some cases those determinants are happening pre-birth" described Professor Deb Hodgson to the University of Newcastle.