NeuRA Magazine #31


NeuRA is embarking on a new project to unlock the secrets about how we can better protect ourselves against mental illness.

Amy and Rachel

The study, led by Senior Research Scientist Dr Justine Gatt, is examining 1,600 twins over a 10-year period.

The reason why twins are so important is because researchers can compare and contrast their mental wellbeing over a number of years to determine the role that both environment and genetics play in preventing mental illness.

Dr Gatt says she’s very grateful for the invaluable insight the twins provide.

“We know that identical twins share the exact same genes and that non-identical twins have 50% genetic similarity. We also know both kinds of twins share mostly similar environments during their childhood and upbringing,” she said.

“So we will be able to use this information about twins to model how our genes and environment influence our mental wellbeing and corresponding brain structure and function over time.”

Two pairs of twins recently shared their story with Nine News. Michelle O’Brien and Narelle Robertson are identical twins in their early sixties who are extremely close.

“Although our lives have taken different paths, we are basically the same human being,” said Michelle.

“I was 17 when I got married, and had a child a lot younger than Narelle did, which placed different sorts

of pressure on me at the time. Different things trigger my stress, but Narelle can detect when I get upset and knows exactly what to say to calm me down,” she said.

Because Michelle and Narelle share the same DNA, discovering how their mental health differs will reveal how their mental vulnerability and resilience has been shaped by the environmental factors they haven’t shared. One example of this could be a traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one.

Narelle and Michelle

Rachel and Amy Maitland are also identical twins, in their thirties, who describe a similar bond.

“We share a lot of the same interests, the same group of friends, and we come from a close family too. We know what each other is thinking, feeling or wanting to do in a situation. But we obviously have different jobs and have had different curveballs thrown at us throughout life so I’m intrigued to see how our mental states differ,” Amy said.

“I’m a school teacher so resilience is a really interesting trait. For me, participating in something that can potentially help mental health is really important,” Rachel added.


“No one knows whether people have certain genes that make them intrinsically more resilient to mental illness over time, or whether it is someone’s life experiences that helps protect them from disorders such as depression or anxiety disorder,” said Dr Justine Gatt.

“Through this study, we are trying to understand how we can cope better with stress, and also flourish as well.”

See what’s going on at NeuRA


Cortical activity during balance tasks in ageing and clinical groups using functional near-infrared spectroscopy

Prof Stephen Lord, Dr Jasmine Menant Walking is not automatic and requires attention and brain processing to maintain balance and prevent falling over. Brain structure and function deteriorate with ageing and neurodegenerative disorders, in turn impacting both cognitive and motor functions.   This series of studies will investigate: How do age and/or disease- associated declines in cognitive functions affect balance control? How is this further impacted by psychological, physiological and medical factors (eg. fear, pain, medications)? How does the brain control these balance tasks?     Approach The experiments involve experimental paradigms that challenge cognitive functions of interest (eg.visuo-spatial working memory, inhibitory function). I use functional near-infrared spectroscopy to study activation in superficial cortical regions of interest (eg. prefrontal cortex, supplementary motor area…). The studies involve young and older people as well as clinical groups (eg.Parkinson’s disease).   Studies Cortical activity during stepping and gait adaptability tasks Effects of age, posture and task condition on cortical activity during reaction time tasks Influence of balance challenge and concern about falling on brain activity during walking Influence of lower limb pain/discomfort on brain activity during stepping   This research will greatly improve our understanding of the interactions between brain capacity, functions and balance control across ageing and diseases, psychological, physiological and medical factors, allows to identify targets for rehabilitation. It will also help identifying whether exercise-based interventions improve neural efficiency for enhanced balance control.