Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, NeuRA
Professor, School of Medicine, UNSW
+612 9399 1604
Appointed institute head in 2004, Peter graduated from the University of Sydney with the University Medal and was awarded a PhD in genetics from The Australian National University in 1985. He undertook postdoctoral positions in biotechnology in the US and the University of Heidelberg. Peter was appointed a NHMRC Senior Research Fellow at the Garvan Institute in 1993, becoming head of the Neurobiology Research Program in 1999. His research interests focus on identifying genes that lead to mental illness and to dementia.
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.
Both genetic and environmental factors are involved in the development of bipolar disorder, a severe mood disorder characterised by oscillations from normal mood to periods of elevated mood (mania) or low mood (depression). Dr Jan Fullerton and Professor Peter Schofield are investigating the genetic contributors to bipolar disorder using Australian families with multiple individuals who have been diagnosed with the disorder. Together with PhD student Erica McAuley, the group has recently identified a bipolar susceptibility locus located on chromosome 15 in a pooled analysis of 35 families. Further, more detailed analysis of this region using a newly acquired campus Illumina beadstation facility for the analysis of SNP markers has identified a single gene, which confers an increased susceptibility to bipolar disorder. They are now aiming to understand how these alterations translate into an increased genetic susceptibility by characterising the biological pathways involved.
Because of the complex pattern of genetic transmission, they expect that multiple genes will contribute to susceptibility to bipolar disorder. It is possible that combinations of genes will be stronger risk factors for developing bipolar disorder than individual genes, so they are examining gene-gene interactions (genetic epistasis) throughout the genome to identify genes which, in concert, may increase susceptibility. This analysis has led to the identification of multiple such interacting regions, and they are now seeking to identify the specific genes involved in these interactions.
In a collaborative study with Professors Kay Wilhelm and Phil Mitchell from the UNSW School of Psychiatry, Professor Peter Schofield and his team examined the genetic variation in the transporter protein that is involved in the reuptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin. There is an association between low serotonin transporter levels, stress and depression. The group has further shown that there is an association between the serotonin transporter genotypes and the way an individual copes with stress. This has led to further clinical studies correlating how individuals can use different methods to handle stress. Their research has significant implications for reducing the likelihood of developing depression and a planned future study will be to evaluate whether specific training in stress management, matched to an individual’s genotype, may lead to a reduction in the incidence of depression.
KERRIE PIERCE Senior Research Assistant
ANNA HEATH Research Assistant
MIRELLE D’MELLO Research Assistant