Two University of Sydney research teams have been awarded NHMRC Synergy Grants to lead projects that will research causes and treatments for mood disorders, as well as the connection between sleep and cognitive decline.
The Synergy Grants, support outstanding multidisciplinary teams of investigators to work together to answer major questions relating to human health and medical research that cannot be answered by a single investigator.
Professor Ian Hickie and Professor Sharon Naismith have each been awarded a $5 million grant.
Professor Hickie’s grant will enable his team to investigate causes and to personalise treatments for body clock dysfunction in mood disorders, while Professor Sharon Naismith’s team will explore the role of sleep disturbance in accelerating cognitive decline, which can lead to dementia.
Professor Robyn Ward, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health, congratulated the researchers on their success.
“These grants will facilitate our world-renowned researchers to bring together multidisciplinary experts to work on these critical research projects.
“It will enable these two teams to truly innovate, with the potential to provide rapid solutions to these significant global health challenges.”
Professor Philip Gale, Interim Dean of the Faculty of Science, said that the awarding of these grants is a recognition of the researchers’ hard work and innovation.
“The challenge is to develop robust scientific testing, to build evidence, and to explore beyond what we already know. This Synergy funding is crucial in supporting these researchers and their teams to strengthen and expand collaborations across disciplines, to leverage their networks, and to build capacity and sustainability for these world-class projects. I’m so delighted for both of them.”
Mood disorders, like depression and bipolar disorder, affect an estimated 300 million people globally. However, causes and optimal treatments for these mood disorders remain unclear.
This grant will enable Professor Ian Hickie, the Co-Director, Health and Policy at the University’s Brain and Mind Centre, to conduct an investigation into body clock dysfunction in mood disorders.
“We want to transform scientific and clinical understanding by assembling a multidisciplinary team of experts in clinical psychiatry, psychiatric genetics, circadian systems, nanotechnology, and modelling and co-design the project with individuals with lived experience of these conditions,” said Professor Hickie.
“We propose that body clock dysfunction is a pathogenic mechanism underlying many mood disorders, and that correction of this dysfunction needs to be targeted with precise circadian therapies.
“We will use new Australian nanotechnology to monitor molecular changes in the circadian system from a drop of blood at single molecule resolution, and conduct clinical, genetic and laboratory studies to investigate the causes of circadian dysfunction on illness and its progression.
“If we’re able to develop the technology to track subtle changes in circulating biomarker levels, we will be better able to personalise care.”
Clinical Neuropsychologist Professor Sharon Naismith and her team will use the grant to examine the patterns, quality and duration of sleep of at-risk individuals.
Using techniques such as overnight blood sampling and innovative brain imaging techniques, they will seek to understand how sleep disturbance contributes to cognitive decline, which can lead to dementia.
More than 50 million people globally live with dementia with 10 million new diagnoses every year. Professor Naismith said that while there is no cure for dementia, around 40-percent of dementia risk factors are modifiable.
Professor Naismith is the Head of the Healthy Brain Ageing Program at the Brain and Mind Centre and the Leonard P Ullman Chair in Psychology at the Charles Perkins Centre.
“Research over the past decade has demonstrated strong connections between sleep disturbance and dementia, suggesting that it is a viable risk but also a prevention target,” Professor Naismith said.
“However, we do not yet know how sleep disturbance leads to dementia brain pathology; when the damaging effects of sleep disturbance are most pronounced; or what the impact of treatments might be.”
“As the world’s population continues to age, we hope our revolutionary approach to addressing sleep disturbance will improve wellbeing and cognitive health, with the potential to ultimately change the functioning and quality of life for millions globally.”