June 11, 2014  Print

Research into why some people are more emotionally resilient in the face of adversity than others has won a Sydney medical researcher two national awards.

Dr Justine Gatt has received the $50,000 Commonwealth Health Minister’s Award for Excellence in Health and Medical Research for her research into the role of emotional resilience to adversity in optimal mental health and wellbeing.

Tonight (June 11), Dr Gatt will also receive a National Health and Medical Research Council Research Excellence Award for being the top-ranked Career Development Fellowship scheme applicant in the Industry category.

Dr Gatt, who is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney and conducts her ground-breaking research at the Westmead Millennium Institute’s Brain Dynamics Centre, aims to promote resilience in low-resilient individuals using e-health online training tools.

Using a trans-disciplinary approach that spans genetics, neuroimaging, psychology and psychiatry in a large cohort of twins, her research aims to understand the psychobiological basis of resilience.

“Resilience is the flip-side of mental illness and by adopting this innovative approach in neurogenetics, we hope to develop a new framework by which we can understand mental health and promote it in the general population,” said Dr Gatt.

By comparing identical to non-identical twins, Dr Gatt hopes to be able to define the relative contribution of genetics versus environment in these processes. By looking at the DNA samples of these twins, she will start to identify the actual genes that may underscore resilience and moderate how people respond to positive and negative life

“The question is how much of our resilience to adversity is determined by the genes we inherit from our parents, and how much is determined by our positive and negative life experiences during childhood and adulthood,” said Dr Gatt.

Her ultimate aim is to develop personalised strategies, including “brain-training” that promote mental wellbeing.

"Understanding resilience is the first step towards personalised health solutions. It provides the capacity to identify the profile of features that could be nurtured in lowresilient individuals in order to prevent psychiatric illness,” said Dr Gatt.

"Resilience bio-signatures that are sensitive and specific could be derived and used as a diagnostic phenotype for predicting risk for developing mental illness following trauma." 

With these e-health “brain training” tools, Dr Gatt hopes to target both children and adults, but particularly adolescents who are undergoing a critical period in brain development and who are most vulnerable to develop mental health problems. “We are exploring these personalised online tools to promote resilience as they are fun
to use and are anonymous,” said Dr Gatt.

“They can be tailored to children or adults, and will be accessible to anyone in the general public.”