Researcher stories: Alfred Deakin Professor Michael Berk

One of the world’s most influential scientific minds, Alfred Deakin Professor Michael Berk is driven by curiosity and a fierce commitment to improve global understanding and treatment of mental health disorders.

A healing mind

Fifteen years ago, drug discovery was at a near standstill for psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. Gaps in understanding held back improvements in treatments that were already far from adequate.

Challenging prevailing assumptions about mental health disorders, Prof Berk, Director of Deakin University’s Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation, has investigated fresh ideas. Now, his team’s research is alleviating distress for millions of people.

‘A critical element in our program is that all potential treatments under study are available, tolerable and affordable. Consequently, our discoveries have translated into world-wide clinical use,’

Professor Michael Berk

Professor Berk is a world authority in psychiatry research, and in 2019 he received Victoria’s highest scientific honour, the Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation. His findings have influenced treatment strategies around the globe including a world-first clinical trial of a new treatment for bipolar disorder as a disorder of energy; antidepressant treatment to reduce the core symptoms of schizophrenia; and showing lithium proves better at treating bipolar disorder than newer drugs. His team’s work on identifying risk factors is leading to new prevention strategies for a range of psychiatric disorders.

‘Being able to tickle one’s academic curiosity and continuously explore new concepts and areas is a privilege.’

Deakin has a ‘culture of support and flexibility’

Recognised as Australia’s most highly-cited neuroscientist, having authored over 1100 scientific papers, Professor Berk reveals that part of the secret to his success is the unique culture at Deakin.

‘I chose Deakin because it has a culture of support, collaboration, trust and cooperation,’ he says, adding that Deakin’s flexible and adaptable approach means ‘it’s not ‘rusted onto’ traditions and ways of doing things that are sub-optimal in a rapidly changing world.’

For Prof Berk these cultural attributes ensure high levels of job satisfaction for IMPACT researchers and, critically, translate to effective solutions for the wards and treatment rooms on the health frontline.

Treating more than symptoms

‘Our discoveries provide alternative approaches, particularly for those who don’t respond well to existing treatments. There’s a huge unmet need and my focus is on treatment, because ultimately when people are unwell that’s what they’re looking for,’ Prof Berk says.

‘Treatment is also the most effective anti-suicide strategy and it’s an essential anti-stigma strategy. The stigma of leprosy didn’t go away because of campaigns; it went away because of antibiotics.’

Bringing the bench to the bedside

IMPACT began in December 2019 with an ambition to improve the quality of life for sufferers of mental health conditions and chronic diseases. By asking important questions about the connection between physical and mental health, such as, ‘How does what we eat affects our mood?’ and repurposing existing drugs, IMPACT’s innovative diagnostics and treatments are at the forefront of new mental health treatments.

‘Our multi-disciplinary, collaborative and responsive approach allows us to quickly translate our biomedical discoveries, made at the science lab bench, into treatment possibilities at the bedside of our trial patients and the broader global community,’

Professor Michael Berk



What is the Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation (IMPACT)?

IMPACT develops new, effective treatment methods to improve mental and physical health for our communities, both in Australia and globally.

Our large multidisciplinary team uses cutting-edge approaches to translate our medical research from the laboratory to real-world solutions.

We seek to answer questions such as: what is the nexus between physical and mental health, can we repurpose existing drugs for new mental health treatments and how does what we eat affect our mood?

Across seven research themes, our researchers work both independently within themes and collaboratively across themes to discover new solutions to mental and physical health problems.

Our research themes are: clinical interventions, food and mood, infection, immunity and cancer, mental health and neuroscience, molecular medicine, novel treatment discovery and population health.

We work to develop innovative diagnostics, treatments and therapies for mental health conditions and chronic medical diseases. Our team of over 200 researchers has a shared aim to improve the quality of life of our global community.

What do you enjoy about being the Director?

The thing I enjoy most about being Director is to support the next generation of talented researchers and academics. It brings great joy to see their success. It is also a true privilege to be able to chart the course of not only your own research, but that of a group.

What do you think distinguishes IMPACT from its competitors?

Our ability to build and sustain multi-disciplinary collaborative teams has made IMPACT uniquely positioned to solve complex health problems. It allows us to take work from the science lab ‘bench’ to the trial patients’ ‘bedside’, forming the bench to bedside approach that IMPACT was founded on.

IMPACT Institute was launched in December 2019 through merging two successful Strategic Research Centres (SRCs) at Deakin. The IMPACT SRC was a national leader in Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Treatment research and the Molecular and Medical Research SRC represented a critical mass of world-class medical researchers investigating the molecular basis of health and disease.

We collaborate with national and international partners from universities, health care providers and philanthropic organisations to increase our impact.

Some of our recent ground-breaking initiatives that are designed to focus our research strengths include: the Food and Mood Centre, which aims to understand the complex ways in which what we eat influences our brain, mood and mental health; our recently-established Centre for Research Excellence for the Development of Innovative Therapies for Psychiatric Disorders (CREDIT); MAGNET, the Mental Health Adult General Clinical Trial Network; and the Change to Improve Mental Health Centre of Excellence (CHIME), a newly-formed translational research partnership with Barwon Health that aims to deliver an evidence-based, consumer-centred and co-designed approach to mental health service improvement.

How do you see IMPACT contributing to Deakin’s strategic priorities? What are your priorities for the Institute?

Achieving both local and global impact, our Institute reflects Deakin’s strategic priority in the theme of Improving Health and Wellbeing. The ideas we generate through our research and the innovative application of those ideas helps to ensure that Deakin is at the forefront of solving some of the world’s greatest health challenges.

In line with Deakin’s strategy, we develop and deliver solutions that improve health care for our communities, focusing on sustainable models of health care delivery, integrated and sustainable models of prevention and whole-of-population health care outcomes that reduce health disparities.

We are also seeking to enhance the capabilities required for sustainable health care reform through participant-centred approaches to health care evaluation, and delivery of evidence-led and transformed practice of innovative digital and technological solutions.

We work with global partners to leverage our capabilities and to adapt approaches to support the delivery of sustainable health care internationally.

IMPACT also embodies Deakin’s emphasis on balancing capability in discovery and innovative application, to maximise our positive impact on society. We are the only Institute within the Deakin School of Medicine and work very closely with healthcare providers such as Barwon Health, Healthscope, the Western Victoria Primary Health Network, Beyond Blue and many other healthcare partners.

Our projects

What are some of the major projects the Institute is working on?

We run several long-term studies that have local, national and global significance – providing evidence for designing clinical trials, generating data for economic modelling and contributing to large international meta-analyses.

For instance, in our population health theme, the Geelong Osteoporosis Study, which began in 1996, is one of few Australian studies that follows contemporary, population-based cohorts of young, through to middle and older-aged people across a range of sociodemographic backgrounds. Biomarkers from this study have formed the basis for improved diagnostic criteria for physical and mental disorders in areas such as osteoporosis and vitamin D.

In our ‘Novel Treatment Discovery’ theme, we have begun a world-first, five-year study into the causes and possible treatment of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), a little understood condition that affects many thousands of Australians, and millions around the world. Conducted through University Hospital Geelong, our research will have a big focus on mitochondria, the energy source in the cell.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is characterised by feelings of low energy, which suggests that the mitochondrial function is abnormal, but there has been very little research on this. By the five-year mark we hope to have identified potential drug therapies and proceed to clinical testing in participants with ME/CFS, hopefully bringing benefit to those suffering from this disorder within a decade.

Within the new field of Nutritional Psychiatry, the world-leading research in our ‘Food and Mood’ theme aims to identify nutrition-based approaches to preventing and treating mental disorders to improve brain and mental health for people everywhere.

Our food and mood researchers are building understanding of the complex ways in which what we eat influences our brain, mood and mental health. Our world-leading research in this space provides evidence that by improving our diets, we can effectively treat depression and anxiety. It has led to breakthrough discoveries about how the quality of our daily diets is linked to the risk of these conditions throughout our lives. An example of the impact of our work is that lifestyle is now a first-line recommendation for the treatment of depression in the Australian and NZ Royal College guidelines.

Current food and mood projects include: exploring human gut bacteria (the microbiome) and mental and brain health across the lifespan, and intervention studies that examine diet and nutrition-based treatments for mental and neurological conditions, among a range of innovative research projects.

Our Novel Treatment Discovery team focusses on developing new treatments for many prevalent health problems, particularly to help those in our community whose lives and livelihoods are disrupted by complex and difficult-to-treat chronic health problems. These researchers work to: find new uses for existing drugs (known as drug repurposing) by taking medications with known safety profiles currently used for one disease and developing them for the treatment of a different disease; discover new drugs and drug delivery strategies for beneficial effects; and to find new and better ways of diagnosing diseases and monitoring treatment outcomes, such as developing novel probes and biomarkers.

In partnership with Barwon Health, we have set up the Change to Improve Mental Health Centre of Excellence (CHIME), a newly formed translational research partnership that aims to deliver an evidence-based, consumer-centred and co-designed approach to mental health service improvement. Across the board, consumers, carers, mental health care providers, governments and communities acknowledge that the mental health system is under considerable stress, and that there is an urgent need for reform. CHIME will allow us to take a leadership role in these reforms and underpin the establishment of a dynamic and world-leading, learning mental health care system.

Finally, it was announced in the 2021 Federal Budget that IMPACT will lead the Mental Health Australia General Clinical Trial Network (MAGNET). This $12 million project has a vision of unlocking innovative world-class clinical trials to deliver new and better mental health treatment and support.  It will be a co-operative, inclusive mental health research alliance and, at a national scale, will shift Australia’s approach to mental health trials, generating much-needed new therapies, lived experience leadership and strategies to enhance treatment access and the health of communities across Australia.

Higher Degree by Research

What disciplines are you looking for in your HDR students and how can prospective students engage with your Institute?

IMPACT researchers span a wide range of disciplines that focus on cells, the body and the mind including: chemistry, biomedicine, nutrition, obesity, psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience, physiology, behavioural science, medicine, immunology, infectious diseases, oncology, metabolic disorders, molecular medicine, epidemiology and more.

An Honours, Masters or PhD opportunity with us will provide access to state-of-the-art facilities to research in a supportive and exciting environment, along with world-class expertise. We’re searching for bright minds to work with our teams of driven researchers who are experts in their fields. Together, we can do something good and have an impact.

Prospective honours, Masters, PhD and postdoctoral students can get in touch here.

How do HDR students contribute to the work the Institute is doing? Where do you see your current HDR students working in the future?

Over 130 students work across our seven research themes, gaining unique experiences with some of the world’s best researchers. Most of our current research leaders began as students in the team and we endeavour to provide a pathway to career fulfilment for our students.

What advice can you provide to a prospective student looking to work in the same field?

I think it’s critical to approach everything you do with grit and determination, and to attempt to do things as well as possible. Life has many twists and turns and it is very hard to predict where one is going to end up, but a critical element is to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

It is also important to be kind to oneself, in as much as one learns and grows more through failure than through success, so tolerance of failure is critical.

The Future of IMPACT

What do you think will be some of the most exciting or ground-breaking uses of IMPACT’s research in 10-20 years’ time?

We have been fortunate that many of our teams’ discoveries have already entered clinical care and this remains the overarching goal of the Institute. We are committed to discoveries that impact human health with the development of novel therapies being the principal prize.

This Researcher Story was originally posted on Deakin Research. Read the full article here.