NeuRA Magazine #23


With over 75% of the population reporting at least one or multiple major traumas in their lifetime, it is imperative that we understand why some people are more vulnerable and go on to develop mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and why some are more adaptive and resilient.

In the field of mental health, most neuroscience research to date has focused on understanding what determines risk for mental illness and ways to treat it. In contrast, there are only a handful of studies which have started to look at the neuroscience of resilience and how to promote it.

Dr Justine Gatt and her research team at NeuRA, for the first time, will aim to identify the brain profiles which predict pathways towards resilience versus risk for mental illness over time. The team are currently doing this in a large sample of 1,600 adult twins ranging in age from 18 to 60 years. To start with, we have developed the first composite scale of wellbeing called the COMPAS-W which provides a combined measure of both subjective and psychological wellbeing.

The researchers are keen to test this measure in predicting patterns of resilience over time. To assist with this, Dr Gatt was recently successful in obtaining NHMRC funding to retest the twin sample 8 years after their initial characterisation. This study will be the first of its kind to show the neuroscience of longitudinal patterns of resilience (or risk) across adulthood. Beyond the current study in adults, the team is planning to take these studies to adolescents and children. They have already conducted a pilot study in 200 patients, looking at the promotion of optimal mental health and resilience as a global health priority. They have found some interesting patterns showing differences in levels of wellbeing across different cultures, and how different types of trauma exposure may modulate this process.

Childhood is a crucial period of personal and physical development, and a child’s brain is particularly vulnerable to the impact of different life experiences – both good and bad. It is therefore critical that we understand how trauma may impact the brain differently during different stages of development, and how optimal resilience can be promoted at different ages.

Grab a list of Dr Gatt’s Resilience tips HERE

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Abdominal muscle stimulation to improve bowel function in spinal cord injury

Bowel complications, resulting from impaired bowel function, are common for people living with a spinal cord injury (SCI). As a result, people with a SCI have high rates of bowel related illness, even compared with those with other neurological disorders. This includes high rates of abdominal pain, constipation, faecal incontinence and bloating. These problems lower the quality of life of people with a SCI and place a financial burden on the health system. A treatment that improves bowel function for people with a SCI should reduce illness, improve quality of life and lead to a large cost saving for health care providers. Bowel problems have traditionally been managed with manual and pharmacological interventions, such as digital rectal stimulation, enemas, and suppositories. These solutions are usually only partially effective, highlighting the need for improved interventions. The abdominal muscles are one of the major muscle groups used during defecation. Training the abdominal muscles should improve bowel function by increasing abdominal pressure. During our previous Abdominal FES research with people with a SCI, we observed that Abdominal FES appeared to lead to more consistent and effective bowel motion. However, this evidence remains anecdotal. As such, we are going to undertake a large randomised controlled trial to investigate the effectiveness of Abdominal FES to improve the bowel function of people with a SCI. This study will make use of a novel measurement system (SmartPill, Medtronic) that can be swallowed to measure whole gut and colonic transit time. We will also assess whether Abdominal FES can change constipation-related quality of life and the use of laxatives and manual procedures, as well as the frequency of defecation and the time taken. A positive outcome from this study is likely to lead to the rapid clinical translation of this technology for people living with a SCI.