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.
Dr Gatt is leading a project that focuses on identifying the longitudinal neural trajectories of vulnerability versus resilience in adult twins. This project involves a 10-year and 12-year follow-up of our adult twin cohort who previously participated in our TWIN-E Study. Changes in mental health outcomes since baseline will be evaluated over multiple time points to characterise different profiles of risk versus resilience over time. We will then evaluate the parallel changes in neurocognitive performance and brain structure and function that correspond to these risk and resilience profiles. By comparing identical to non-identical twins, we will determine the role of genetics and environment in these pathways over time.
Team Members & Collaborators
The investigators on this project include Dr Justine Gatt as CIA (NeuRA and UNSW, Australia), Dr Robin Turner as CIB (University of Otago, New Zealand) and Professor Leanne Williams as CIC (Stanford University, USA). The PhD students involved in this project include: Miranda Chilver (PhD), Javad Jamshidi (Scientia PhD), and Arthur Montalto (PhD). The twin participants to be recruited for this project will be drawn from the Twins Research Australia (TRA) twin registry (https://www.twins.org.au/).
This project is currently supported by a NHMRC Project Grant (APP1122816, 2017-2021).
Key Outcomes & Publications
Recruitment for this project is underway.
Mental health and wellbeing is not simply the absence of mental illness, yet we know very little about its underlying neural and genetic mechanisms in relative comparison. Similarly, we know very little about the underlying mechanisms that contribute towards resilience to stress and adversity. This project led by Dr Justine Gatt aims to identify the genetics and neuroscience of resilience and wellbeing in a prospective cohort of 1,600 healthy adult twins.
Team Members & Collaborators
Dr Justine Gatt is leading this project as NHMRC CDF Research Fellow. Additional investigators on this project include Prof Peter Schofield (NeuRA and UNSW, Australia) and Prof Leanne Williams (Stanford University, USA). The PhD and graduate students involved in this project include: Kylie Routledge (PhD, completed), Rebecca Alexander (PhD), Sandy Wong (ILP, 2018), Miranda Chilver (PhD), Javad Jamshidi (Scientia PhD), and Arthur Montalto (PhD). Research Assistants involved in this project include: Sicong Tu (2016), Emily Crocetti (volunteer RA from Dartmouth USA, 2018). The twin participants for this project were drawn from the Twins Research Australia (TRA) twin registry (https://www.twins.org.au/).
This project is supported by a NHMRC Career Development Fellowship awarded to Dr Justine Gatt (APP1062495, 2014-2017), a Commonwealth Health Minister’s Award for Excellence in Health and Medical Research awarded to Dr Justine Gatt ($50,000, 2014-2017), and PhD Scholarships awarded to each PhD student.
Key Outcomes & Publications
One key outcome from this project is the development of the 26-item COMPAS-W Wellbeing Scale (Gatt et al., 2014, Psychiatry Research). What differentiates this wellbeing scale from many others is that it provides a “composite” measure of wellbeing; that is, a measure of both subjective (hedonia) and psychological (eudaimonia) wellbeing. The COMPAS-W scale can be used to calculate total wellbeing, as well as subscale measures of composure, own-worth, mastery, positivity, achievement and satisfaction. Twin modelling was conducted on the scale and heritability (genetic variability) was confirmed to be 48%. To download a copy of this scale, please click here.
We have since conducted a number of studies examining the association between the COMPAS-W Wellbeing Scale and measures of depression and anxiety symptoms using the DASS-42 Scale (Routledge et al., 2016); measures of neurocognitive performance such as motor coordination, processing speed, sustained attention, cognitive control and flexibility, inhibition, working memory, recall memory and executive function (Routledge et al., 2017); and measures of emotion processing of positive and negative facial expressions (Routledge et al., 2018). Most recently, we have also demonstrated associations between COMPAS-W Wellbeing scores and grey matter volumetric differences in the brainstem pontine nuclei using MRI (Gatt et al., 2018). Across these studies, statistical analyses incorporated univariate and multivariate modelling of phenotypic, as well as genetic and environmental variance between twin pairs.
Gatt JM (In Press). The neuroscience of wellbeing: Part 1. In: Cohen L. Ed. The Encyclopedia of Health Psychology. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Gatt JM (In Press). The neuroscience of wellbeing: Part 2. In: Cohen L. Ed. The Encyclopedia of Health Psychology. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Alexander R and Gatt JM (In Press). Resilience. In: Miu AC, Homberg JR, Lesch K-P. Eds. Genes, Brain and Emotions: From Resilience to Psychopathology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Chapter 17.
Gatt JM, Burton KLO, Routledge KM, Grasby KL, Korgaonkar MS, Grieve SM, Schofield PR, Harris AWF, Clark CR, Williams LM. (2018). A negative association between brainstem pontine gray matter volume, wellbeing and resilience in healthy twins. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Jun 20; 43(5): 170125. doi: 10.1503/jpn.170125.
Routledge KM, Williams LM, Harris AWF, Schofield PR, Clark CR, Gatt JM. (2018). Genetic correlations between wellbeing, depression and anxiety symptoms and behavioral responses to the emotional faces task in healthy twins. Psychiatry Research, 264, 385-393.
Routledge KM, Burton KLO, Williams LM, Harris A, Schofield PR, Clark CR, Gatt JM. (2017). The shared and unique genetic relationship between mental wellbeing, depression and anxiety symptoms and cognitive function in healthy twins. Cognition and Emotion, 31(7), 1465-1479.
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