Brain Neuromodulation​ Research Program

Neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders account for 20% of Australia’s burden of disease. ​ 

Our program looks to help people living with these disorders, bringing together a unique collaboration of neuroscientists, clinicians, electrical engineers, and physicists with the unifying purpose of developing next generation therapies. ​ 

We will use leading-edge brain science to transform neuromodulation therapies that can return nerve activity and brain function to health.​ 

Our Brain Neuromodulation Research Program aims to improve the understanding of a number of brain and nerve conditions with the aim of developing new, improved therapies. These areas include: 

Pain and inflammation 

Chronic pain is a complex condition associated with persistent pain that lasts longer than the normal time for healing after an injury (>3–6months). It affects one in five Australians aged 45 and over.   

Chronic pain conditions can be caused by a range of factors such as injury, surgery, musculoskeletal conditions, and nerve damage or can result from an underlying inflammatory condition like such as endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease.   

Treatments generally involve the use of prescription opioid pain relief that with long term use can lead to opioid abuse or dependency. In some cases, spinal cord stimulator devices are inserted as a drug free alternative treatment option. However current technologies for spinal cord stimulation can be ineffective in certain patients or lose their efficacy over time, a limitation we aim to be able to improve through our research.  

Mood Disorders – Depression, anxiety and anxiety related disorders (PTSD, OCD) 

In any one year, 1 million Australian adults have depression. Whilst there are several factors linked to the development of depression, the exact cause remains unknown. A combination of recent events, longer term and personal factors are usually linked to depression. There has been much research into the changes that occur in the brain during depression however much is still not understood.  

Anxiety and anxiety related disorders include a range of conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Around 25% of people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point during their life. These disorders are usually characterised by ongoing and distressing excessive or irrational anxiety or fear which interferes with daily life. People living with anxiety disorders can also experience physical symptoms such as trembling, sweating, rapid heartbeat, nausea and breathing difficulties. 

Researchers within our program investigate the pathways and chemicals in the brain that are affected in depression and anxiety to enhance our understanding of the disorder. Discoveries in these areas will help refine those treatments already available for depression and provide new treatment options for those individuals who don’t respond to current therapies.  

Addiction (drug and alcohol) 

Each year in Australia there are over 4,000 deaths in Australia as a result of alcohol and other drugs and the combined economic cost is $23.5 billion. One in 20 Australians are living with an addiction or substance abuse problem. Although much progress has been made in identifying individual brain regions involved in addiction there are presently few effective therapies available. Our researchers are working to better understand the anatomy and chemistry of the parts of the brain involved in addiction, to allow the development of improved therapies.  

Complex Brain and Psychiatric disorders – eg. psychosis, schizophrenia 

Schizophrenia is a mental illness that affects one in one hundred people in Australia and worldwide. It presents in adolescence or young adulthood with many of those affected experiencing continuing disability. Schizophrenia results in a heavy emotional burden and distress for individuals for families and costs the community around $2.6 billion annually in direct costs and loss of productivity.  

There is currently no cure for this lifelong illness. Current treatments are designed to manage symptoms and do not target the cause. These medications are often associated with unwanted side effects and provide only partial relief of symptoms.  

Our research aims to use basic neuroscience approaches to better understand the mechanisms associated with behavioural dysfunction in complex psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, with the goal that this knowledge may help guide the development of targeted, improved treatment options. 

Balance and hearing – dizziness, Meniere’s disease, tinnitus, deafness  

Balance and hearing disorders can be debilitating and have devastating effects on a person’s quality of life. For people living with balance and dizziness disorders, these disorders increase the risk of falls (particularly in aged patients) and can result in serious injury. Apart from injury, patients experiencing ongoing issues with balance and dizziness can experience stress and anxiety of experiencing an attack in public and causing a scene which can lead to embarrassment or shame. They can affect the social and mental well-being of individuals living with these conditions and can leave sufferers feeling isolated. 

Balance is a complex sense, comprising multiple components within the brain and nervous system and is poorly understood. Our researchers investigate how the individual components of this system interact with the aim of determining the underlying cause of balance disorders. With this knowledge therapies can be developed to minimise the impact of loss of balance function.  

Alongside the balance system, the auditory system involves neighbouring regions in the inner ear and brain stem. In Australia, about 3.6 million people live with some level of hearing loss (https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/ear-health/about). Deafness and hearing disorders can affect an individual’s ability to learn and to communicate both socially and in a workplace. This can severely affect their confidence and self-esteem which can lead to depression. Deafness and hearing loss can occur as a result of ageing, exposure to loud noises, genetics or due to an untreated medical condition.  

Our researchers are working with cutting-edge materials and technologies to improve the therapies currently available for hearing disorders.  

Neurodegenerative Conditions – Dementia (including Alzheimer’s Disease) 

Dementia is the broad term used to describe a range of neurodegenerative conditions. It is characterised by a progressive decline in mental functioning beyond that of general aging. In 2019 dementia was the 2nd leading cause of death in Australia and in 2021 it is estimated there were up to 472,000 Australians estimated to be living with dementia. 

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for dementia and its effects on those living with dementia cannot be reversed. Our research hopes to better understand the causes of neurodegeneration with the aim of identifying interventions that will extend health-span and help people to live better for longer.  

Innovations and discovery 

Neurological and neuropsychiatric disease accounts for 20% of the disease burden in Australia. More than 1,000 disorders of the brain and nervous system result in more hospitalisations than any other disease group, including heart disease and cancer. Sadly, disease modifying treatments are not available for most of these disorders, with current treatments only addressing symptoms. Current treatments for many of these disorders are largely ineffective and outcome based with theoretical explanations, rather than based on a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms of action of the treatment. 

Our Brain Neuromodulation Research Program aims to improve the treatment of neurological and neuropsychiatric disease in our community. The anticipated health outcomes for our communities will be substantial, with new evidence-based treatments (drugs and stimulators) built on a comprehensive understanding of how adaptive function can be restored in nerve cell circuits of the brain and body.   

We will address the paucity of effective treatments for brain disorders by bringing together field-leading neuroscientists working across all components of the nervous system, clinicians treating relevant patient groups, along with material science physicists, pharmaceutical industry, and electrical engineers. This establishes an exciting pathway for innovation and translation with a goal to develop next generation therapies for neurological and neuropsychiatric brain diseases.