Child neurodevelopment and mental health

Enhancing children’s wellbeing and development
Our team brings together world leaders to improve child neurodevelopment and mental wellbeing.

About our research

Neurodevelopmental disorders affect approximately one in 10 Australian children and include Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders, Cerebral Palsy and Tourette's Syndrome. These disorders impact cognitive, social, and emotional development in the first years of life. Our clinical researchers specialise in developing innovative assessments and treatments that support child development and mental health. We also work to identify factors that contribute to vulnerability, resilience and well-being in children and their families.

Our team takes a novel, transdiagnostic approach to child neurodevelopment and mental health, integrating high performing researchers from multiple disciplines including imaging, neurochemistry, genomics, biomechanics, psychology, neurology, psychiatry, paediatrics, speech pathology, and occupational therapy. We work in partnership with Sydney’s Local Health Districts to conduct clinical trials of behavioural therapies, and neuropsychological, genomic, inflammatory and neurobiological interventions.

Our approach

Rather than focus directly on symptomatic improvement or progress toward acute intervention for an individual childhood disorder, Our Child Neurodevelopment and Mental Health team’s family-centred approach addresses the developmental and emotional needs of the individual child.

In collaboration with clinical service providers, industry and the community, we aim to improve assessment and early interventions in child neurodevelopmental disorders and mental health broadly.

With this approach we aim to identify and treat each child at the earliest possible time with the best possible approaches to address the health and societal issues associated with child neurodevelopmental and mental health disorders.

Our society uses labels to represent a way of differentiating and identifying groups and people, while this is a useful tool, it can lead to rigid diagnostic categories (such as autism, conduct disorder, anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

What makes our research unique is our focus on factors that effect child development across disorders and across multi-disciplinary silos. In this way we begin to answer questions that impact all children and families with neurodevelopmental needs and avoid the traditional reliance on silo-based work. We work with children who present with a broad range of emotional and social development concerns and design the most effective intervention based on the unique needs of each child.

Our research has shown that there are significant overlaps among many mental health conditions in childhood, so our approach provides a more effective way to prevent and manage mental health concerns in children.

Our current projects

We have developed world-first medical, behavioural and parenting interventions for some of early childhood’s most difficult-to-treat mental health disorders. We have conducted high-impact, independent clinical trials that have changed how clinical trials are carried out internationally.

we have demonstrated the powerful effects of oxytocin on enhancing cognitive processing of social-stimuli such as recognising emotional facial expressions. Since then, we have gone on to show that an oxytocin nasal spray may benefit social impairment in young children with autism. This will develop our knowledge to determine whether oxytocin could become a potential medicinal therapy in the future.

Our work is informed by investigating key neurobiological markers (that is, biological characteristics) of emotional, behavioural and social problems in children.

The research of the biological markers means we can more effectively identify how children benefit from different types of treatments, as well as understand and track how these treatments improve outcomes, in turn, developing our understanding for more effective treatments.

Parentworks is Australia’s first online, nationally available parenting program. We are developing evidence-based programs for families. We developed this program to provde strategies for families to help improve parenting skills, children’s confidence and improve child behavior. The program aims to increase the involvement of parents in improving outcomes for families.

Importantly, the program has been developed to encourage greater participation from both parents as we know that programs are more effective when both parents are involved. ParentWorks is designed to be particularly helpful for assisting parents to manage challenging child behaviours. To find out more or to participate in the program, visit Parentworks.

Key publications

This model directs how interventions can target neural circuits for social development and be applied early in life. To illustrate, the role of oxytocin and its use as an intervention is explored. The AIDRR model shifts focus away from delivering broad treatments based only on diagnostic classifications, to specifying and targeting the relevant circuits, at the right time of development, to optimize social learning.

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Maternal thyroid autoimmunity may represent a risk factor for neuropsychiatric disorders in offspring. Atypical neuropsychiatric features in these children may be due to maternal immune activation in utero.

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When no disease-modifying therapies are possible, symptomatic therapies are often all that is available. These classically target dopaminergic, cholinergic, alpha-adrenergic, or GABAergic neurochemistry. Increasing interest in neuromodulation has highlighted that some clinical syndromes respond better to DBS, and further highlights the importance of "disease-specific" therapies with a future focus on individualized therapies according to the genomic findings or disease pathways that are disrupted. We summarize some pragmatic applications of symptomatic therapies, neuromodulation techniques, and some rehabilitative interventions and provide a contemporary overview of treatment in childhood-onset movement disorders. 

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Although there has been considerable research into knowledge transfer for over a century, there remains a need for specific, validated techniques for teaching for transfer. This article reports on classroom-based research in which students learned about complex systems and climate change with agent-based computer models using two different instructional approaches based on productive failure (PF). In both PF approaches, students initially explored a problem space on their own and then received teacher-led instruction. One treatment group used climate computer models whereas the other group engaged in analogical comparisons between the same climate computer models and complexity computer models in different domains. The study found both groups demonstrated significant learning gains by posttest on assessments of declarative and explanatory knowledge and on within domain near transfer. However, students in the two models treatment group performed at a significantly higher level on an across domain far transfer problem solving task. Theoretical and practical implications are considered.

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Early diagnosis begins with a medical history and involves using neuroimaging, standardized neurological, and standardized motor assessments that indicate congruent abnormal findings indicative of cerebral palsy. Clinicians should understand the importance of prompt referral to diagnostic-specific early intervention to optimize infant motor and cognitive plasticity, prevent secondary complications, and enhance caregiver well-being.

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Many genetic subtypes of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) show signs of symptomatic disease during the earliest years of life. This might be the ideal time to intervene before progression of clinical sequelae due to demyelination and axonal loss. In the absence of disease-specific clinical trial outcome measures for CMT during infancy and early childhood the aim of this study was to develop and validate a functional measure of disease severity, known as the Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease Infant Scale (CMTInfS). Development projects involved identification of a preliminary pool of 31 items representing the range of disability in affected patients aged 0-4 years from a systematic review of the literature, peer review by 12 expert clinicians and researchers in the field, design of a scoring algorithm and pilot testing in 22 participants.

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Scores on the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease Pediatric Scale (CMTPedS), a well-validated unidimensional clinical outcome measure to assess disease severity. This instrument includes 11 items assessing fine and gross motor function, sensation, and balance to produce a total score ranging from 0 (unaffected) to 44 (severely affected).

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Our partners

Meet our child research collaborators and supporting partners

Our team

  • Professor Adam Guastella
  • Professor Russell Dale
  • Professor Nadia Badawi
  • Professor Joshua Burns
  • Professor Natasha Nassar
  • Professor Iona Novak
  • Professor Ralph Nanan
  • Professor Alistair McEwan
  • Professor Fernando Calamante
  • Associate Professor Suncica Lah
  • Associate Professor Joanne Arciuli
  • Associate Professor Michael Kohn
  • Associate Professor Natalie Silove
  • Dr Antoinette Redoblado-Hodge
  • Associate Professor Daniel Catchpoole