Identifying the gene-brain mechanisms that contribute to depression


Depression is more than just tearfulness or feelings of sadness. It refers to a range of mood and other symptoms that are intense, long-lasting and distressing to the person. These symptoms will likely interfere with a person’s day-to-day life and relationships.

Symptoms include:

  • not wanting to go out or take part in activities that were previously enjoyable
  • withdrawing from social contact with friends and/or family
  • difficulties in concentrating or sleeping
  • feeling overwhelmed, guilty or frustrated
  • experiencing negative thoughts
  • feeling sick, tired or run down all of the time.

The causes of depression can vary from person to person. For some, stressful life events such as the loss of a relationship or job, long-term unemployment, physical health issues, family problems, or the death of a loved one might trigger depression. For others, there is no obvious cause.


Genes, environment and depression

In a collaborative study with Professors Kay Wilhelm and Phil Mitchell from the UNSW School of Psychiatry, Professor Peter Schofield and his team examined the genetic variation in the transporter protein that is involved in the reuptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin. There is an association between low serotonin transporter levels, stress and depression. The group has further shown that there is an association between the serotonin transporter genotypes and the way an individual copes with stress. This has led to further clinical studies correlating how individuals can use different methods to handle stress. Their research has significant implications for reducing the likelihood of developing depression and a planned future study will be to evaluate whether specific training in stress management, matched to an individual’s genotype, may lead to a reduction in the incidence of depression.

Falls, ageing and dementia in Indigenous Australians

We aim to identify determinants for the high prevalence of dementia in Indigenous Australians, and will now extend these findings by exploring determinants for the high prevalence of falls.

Koori Growing Old Well Study

The primary aim of a proposed longitudinal study is to find the reasons for the high dementia rates (three times non-Indigenous rates) in urban/regional Aboriginal people.

NeuroSleep: A NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence

This project aims to understand the bidirectional relationship between sleep and the brain to test and develop new approaches to treatment for sleep disruption across a range of medical disorders.  

Genetics of normal brain function and links to anxiety and depression symptoms

Using various cognitive, psychological and neuroimaging measures, they have investigated the role of several genes known to be involved in brain disorders.

The TWIN-E study in emotion and cognition

The overall goal of this project is to establish the role of genetics versus environment for each measure of emotion and cognition, as well as resting state function, using twin modelling.

What else is happening in Depression research at NeuRA?


'I've got the best job for you dad. Your shaky arm will be perfect for it!'

Children… honest and insightful. Their innocence warms the heart. But what words do you use to explain to a child that daddy has an incurable brain disease? What words tell them that in time he may not be able to play football in the park, let alone feed himself? What words help them understand that in the later stages, dementia may also strike? Aged just 36, this was the reality that faced Steve Hartley. Parkinson's disease didn't care he was a fit, healthy, a young dad and devoted husband. It also didn't seem to care his family had no history of it. The key to defeating Parkinson's disease is early intervention, and thanks to a global research team, led by NeuRA, we're pleased to announce that early intervention may be possible. Your support, alongside national and international foundations Shake it Up Australia and the Michael J Fox Foundation, researchers have discovered that a special protein, found in people with a family history of the disease increases prior to Parkinson’s symptoms developing. This is an incredible step forward, because it means that drug therapies, aimed at blocking the increase in the protein, can be administered much earlier – even before symptoms strike. The next step is to understand when to give the drug therapies and which people will most benefit from it. But we need your help. A gift today will support vital research and in time help medical professionals around the world treat Parkinson’s disease sooner, with much better health outcomes. Thank you, in advance, for your support.