Using resilience to recover from problems or challenges


Our research

Our research focuses on identifying what characterises resilience in terms of its underlying brain mechanisms as well as the contributions from genetics and environment. To measure brain function, we use various techniques including neurocognitive performance tests conducted on computers, as well as tests conducted during a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI) or while wearing an electrophysiological (EEG) cap on the head.

At the moment, we are focusing on understanding resilience in a large cohort of Australian adult twins – both identical and non-identical twins – who have been tested over time. We are also testing resilience in other samples including young adults and adolescents.

The aim of this work is to understand what determines resilience in people who have been exposed to some trauma or adversity, yet are flourishing and doing very well. With this understanding, we can then develop interventions to promote resilience in more vulnerable or high-risk groups.


What we have discovered

In the Gatt Group we have developed a new measure of wellbeing called the COMPAS-W Wellbeing Scale (Gatt et al., 2014). This is a 26-item questionnaire that measures both subjective and psychological wellbeing. We plan to use this measure in our research as an indicator of levels of flourishing and resilience to trauma and stress. Initial heritability results suggest that wellbeing has 48% heritability; this means that both our genetics and environment are equally important in determining levels of mental health and optimal functioning.

We have started to identify mechanisms in the brain that may be an indicator of resilience. This includes variation in the size of specific brain regions and how they respond to different emotional stimuli. We have also identified variation with specific cognition functions, including in particular executive functioning. These findings were identified in our twin cohort of 1,600 identical and non-identical twins. We are planning to publish and extend these analyses in the near future.

In our recent review of potential genetic mechanisms involved in different psychiatric disorders (Gatt et al., 2015), we have started to identify potential variants to target as resilience genes. Current research efforts are focusing on identifying protective genetic variants in our large twin cohort that may predict resilience to stress and improved mental health outcomes over time.


Current projects

Due to the complexity of the resilience process over time, we expect significant variation with age and culture, amongst other factors. As a result, we have a number of projects investigating the process of resilience in older adults, young adults and adolescents, as well as international collaborative studies to evaluate the impact of culture and migration. Some of these studies are focused on understanding mechanisms, and the other studies are focused on evaluating potential interventions.

Project 1 – In our large adult cohort of 1,600 twins, we are identifying the factors that contribute to resilience, focusing on mechanisms such as genes, environment (e.g., life experiences, parenting styles), measures of cognitive function, EEG and neuroimaging.

Project 2 – We are examining specific mechanisms of reward and reward sensitivity in the resilience process in a large group of young adults. This project includes an examination of the resilience process during a naturalistic stressor like academic examinations.

Project 3 – In young adolescents tested in Australia and five other international sites (Canada, New Zealand, China, the UK and South Africa), we are examining the comparable mechanisms of resilience in mental health outcomes and the influence of culture and migration in youth over time.

Project 4 – In this e-health study, we are evaluating the utility of an online brain training tool in promoting wellbeing, resilience and cognitive function in our adult twin cohort, in collaboration with industry.

Project 5 – We are also testing another e-health tool at the moment in young adults. This tool aims to measure and promote wellbeing and provides a measure of wellbeing for the self, as well as other core life domains (e.g., family and work).

See what’s going on at NeuRA


Exploring the electrophysiology and heritability of wellbeing and resilience

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.