A healing mind

Over the past two decades, drug discovery has come to 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, Professor Michael Berk, Director of Deakin University’s Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation (IMPACT), 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,” Prof Berk said.

Prof 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; an antioxidant treatment to reduce the core symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; and showing lithium proves better at treating bipolar disorder than some newer drugs. His team’s work on identifying risk factors is leading to new prevention strategies for a range of psychiatric disorders.

He is also involved in two psychological research programs currently recruiting adults with bipolar disorder (called BipolarWISE) and their family and friends (called BipolarASSIST) exploring ways to enhance the wellbeing of both people with bipolar disorder and those closest to them.

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

Recognised as Australia’s most highly-cited neuroscientists, having authored over 1100 scientific papers, Prof Berk is leading a new national collaboration to transform the way mental health treatment is developed and tested with $12 million support from the Federal Government’s Medical Research Future Fund.

IMPACT research is translating to effective solutions for the wards and treatment rooms on the health frontline.

“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 said.

“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.”

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,” Prof Berk said.

Interested in getting involved in IMPACT’s research? BipolarWISE and BipolarASSIST are currently recruiting adults with bipolar disorder and their family and friends respectively. Learn more: https://bit.ly/DRbipolar

This article was originally published by Deakin Research. Read the original profile here