Resilience defines the process that enables people to cope and positively adapt in the face of stress or misfortune, and enables them to better handle adversity or rebuild their lives after a catastrophe.
Being resilient does not mean a person has not experienced difficulty or distress or only remaining positive in the most dire of situations. Rather, resilient people are able to use their skills and strengths to cope and recover from problems or challenges, such as job loss, financial problems, illness, natural disasters or the death of a loved one.
There are several factors that are associated with resilience, including:
Importantly, these are skills that people can learn and develop for themselves.
In the past decade, resilience has emerged as a major theoretical and research topic. The focus of many studies has been to understand the role of our environment in resilience, as well as the psychological and behavioural factors that contribute to resilience in a person. In contrast, there is still a very limited understanding of the neuroscience or genetics of resilience. In particular, the brain networks that contributes to the resilience process, and how our genetics and environment influences these processes over time.
The majority of adults without a mental illness still experience poor mental health, indicating a need for a better understanding of what separates mental wellness from mental illness. One way of exploring what separates those with good mental health from those with poor mental health is to use electroencephalography (EEG) to explore differences in brain activity within the healthy population. Previous research has shown that EEG measures differ between clinical groups and healthy participants, suggesting that these measures are useful indicators of mental functioning.
Miranda Chilver’s current project aims to examine how different EEG measures relate to each other and to test if they can be used to predict mental wellbeing. Furthermore, she hopes to distinguish between EEG markers of symptoms including depression and anxiety, and markers of positive symptoms of wellbeing to better understand how wellbeing can exist independently of mental illness. This will be done by obtaining measures of wellbeing and depression and anxiety symptoms using the COMPAS-W and DASS-42 questionnaires, respectively.
Because EEG measures and mental wellbeing are both impacted by genetics as well as the environment, Miranda will also be testing whether the links found between EEG activity and Wellbeing are driven primarily by heritable or by environmental factors. This information will inform the development of future interventions that will aim to improve wellbeing in the general population.
To achieve these goals, the project will assess the relationship between EEG activity and wellbeing, and between EEG and depression and anxiety symptoms to first test whether there is an association between EEG and mental health. Second, the heritability of the EEG, wellbeing, depression, and anxiety will be assessed to determine the extent to which these variables are explained through heritable or environmental factors. Finally, a model assessing the overlap between the heritable versus environmental contributions to each measure will be developed to assess whether genetics or environment drive the relationship between EEG and mental health.
This project is based on a sample of over 400 healthy adult twins from the Australian TWIN-E study of resilience led by Dr Justine Gatt. This research will pave the way for improved mental health interventions based on individual needs.
Despite numerous research into the genetics of psychiatric disorders, investigations regarding the molecular genetics of wellbeing and resilience and in general healthy functioning using new technologies and methods are still scarce. There is very little known about the genetic factors influencing our wellbeing and resilience. Only a few recent genome wide association studies successfully detected a number of genetic variants influencing wellbeing. However, these variants are only responsible for a very small proportion of wellbeing heritability and much more are still waiting to be discovered.
My research area is focused on understanding the role of genetics and environment in mental wellbeing and resilience; in particular, the role of genetic and epigenetic factors and how they interact with each other and the environment in predicting mental health.
We have at our disposal an amazing population of 1600 twins with psychological data including mental health and wellbeing questionnaires, including personality questionnaires and a specific composite wellbeing questionnaire developed by the Gatt group called COMPAS-W. These twins also underwent a genetic analysis using PsychArray and their genotyping data is available. In addition, a portion of these twins have EEG and neuroimaging data (MRI, fMRI, DTI), which will allow us to further investigate the effect of genetic markers on these variables and how they interact to yield the end phenotype.
We have three main questions to answer in this project:
First, do genetic variations influence wellbeing in our twin cohort? Which genes? How and to what extent?
Second, do genetic variations influence the neurobiological markers measured by EEG, MRI, fMRI and DTI in the twin population?
Third, is there any connection or correlation between the genetic markers which influence wellbeing and those which influence the neurobiological markers? How much of these phenotypes are genetically correlated?
Every aspect of our lives influences our state of wellbeing and in turn, our wellbeing greatly affects our lives and long-term health. Several studies have shown that wellbeing predicts increased longevity and healthy aging, resistance to infection, reduced risk for illness and mortality, personal growth and even learning. More recently, mental wellbeing has been positively associated with sustained attention, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, motor coordination and working memory. Additionally, major mental illnesses are usually associated with emotional and cognitive dysfunction, and neural networks involved in threat, reward, attention and cognitive control underscore some of the main processes of emotional and cognitive function. These networks are therefore likely to be central to mental wellbeing and resilience to stress. Although the link between wellbeing and health has been fairly well documented, knowledge of the neural mechanisms that underpin wellbeing and resilience are still lacking. Investigating the neuroscience of wellbeing is crucial to capture and promote mental and physical health in the general population.
Using the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technique, the main objectives of this project are:
(1). To understand how the neural networks and autonomic responses that underpin emotional responses (e.g., to threat and reward) and cognitive control (e.g., working memory and inhibition) are associated with varying levels of wellbeing, resilience, emotional health status and other life outcomes;
(2). Whether change in neural networks predict change in wellbeing and resilience over time (longitudinal component); and
(3). To investigate how different genetic and environment factors may modulate these neural networks.
This PhD project will extend our understanding of wellbeing and its relationship with emotional processes and cognitive function. The results from this project will be valuable and robust as it will be based on a large sample of 270 twin participants scanned over time. Research on wellbeing and resilience has major implications for mental and physical health on the general population, and we hope that this project will greatly contribute to the advancement of mental health research.
Mental health and wellbeing is not simply the absence of mental illness, yet we know very little about its underlying mechanisms in relative comparison. Dr Justine Gatt and Prof Peter Schofield, together with Prof Leanne Williams (Stanford University) are studying the genetics and neuroscience of resilience and wellbeing in a prospective cohort of 1,600 healthy adult twins. They have recently developed a new 26-item composite scale of wellbeing called COMPAS-W (Gatt et al., 2014, Psychiatry Res), with genetic modelling demonstrating a heritability estimate of 48% for total wellbeing. Multivariate modelling further suggested common genetic factors contributed to wellbeing and its subcomponents of composure, own-worth, mastery, positivity, achievement and satisfaction. Now they are aiming to understand the neuroscience of wellbeing and resilience, how different genes and environments modulate pathways to mental health, and how e-health tools can promote resilience against life stressors.
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