Art and architecture at NeuRA

Bettina Bartos is the architect who designed NeuRA’s Margarete Ainsworth building. She shares how the building’s design was developed, and how the innovative vision of Artbank and its collection of Australian art put the finishing touches on this much-welcomed facility.

There is nothing new about the synergy between art and science. Indeed, Leonardo Da Vinci is probably best known for his artworks that were informed by scientific investigation. So it seemed only appropriate that the new building for NeuRA provide an opportunity to highlight the natural overlap between art and science.

Having seen various artworks that existing NeuRA building occupants had used to personalise their workspaces, and gifts of artworks from patients, it seemed as though staff and visitors alike would appreciate having larger pieces located throughout the building.

Isobel Johnston series

The external facetted glass form of the building was designed to facilitate a memorable image for NeuRA, and speak of the cutting-edge research occurring within. The internal arrangement was no less important, with the driving forces being to encourage and facilitate interaction and collaboration between staff, and to maximise natural light and the feeling of space to both laboratory and office areas.

This, in turn, led to the design of a series of spaces, such as the large triple-height atrium with its connecting bridge links and the generous lift cores on every level, which also provided a perfect opportunity for the incorporation and display of art.

Artworks needed to be generous and bold in order to do the space justice; however, the purchase of a large number of substantial artworks was not economically feasible. This led to the idea of “borrowing” significant pieces for long-term display.

I had heard about an organisation called Artbank, an Australian Government support program that acquires the work of living, Australian contemporary artists who make their collection available to the general public through a leasing program.

The Artbank collection has been building for over 30 years, and with around 10,000 artworks, it is one of the largest collections of Australian art in the world, holding “some of the greatest examples of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artwork produced during the past four decades”. 100% of the revenue generated from leasing is directed towards supporting living artists, so I was excited to be able to initiate a great opportunity to expose NeuRA building occupants and visitors to some great examples of Australian contemporary art, whilst at the same time supporting Australian art and culture.

The brief to Artbank was simple: to select pieces that responded to both the NeuRA vision and the architectural significance of the building. Artwork needed to be placed in prominent locations to maximise the experience for everyone, and needed to complement the strong internal colour scheme of the building. Being able to find artwork that had a ‘scientific theme’ would be an added bonus. Given that many of the artworks would also be able to be viewed from both near and far, it was important that individual pieces were able to respond to a changing perspective.

Working closely with one of Artbank’s art consultants, a site visit was arranged to gain an understanding of NeuRA and its research programs, and the architectural quality of the space itself. From this, Artbank began with a preliminary selection of artworks that they felt met our brief.

However, with so many artworks in Artbank’s collection, choosing the final pieces was not a simple task. As the selection of art is such a personal experience, it was important to choose pieces that were not too polarising, but at the same time had enough interest to generate discussion and create stimulating spaces. After many hours spent in Artbank’s warehouse sorting through rack after rack of art, and then checking against availability and budget, we had our collection!

Frank Hodgkinson - "Sun"

Frank Hodgkinson – “Sun”

Now, if you wander through the Margarete Ainsworth building you will see a selection of incredible artworks from some of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, including Frank Hodgkinson, Matthew Johnson, Wendy Kelly, David Sequeira, Philip Watkins, Isobel Johnston, and William Breen.

What can our genes tell us about mental illness?

Bipolar disorder affects 350,000 Australians, and has been ranked in the top 20 most disabling disorders globally, making it even more disabling than depression. Dr Jan Fullerton‘s research aims to better understand how genes contribute to bipolar disorder.

Dr Jan Fullerton in the lab

Dr Jan Fullerton in the lab

Bipolar disorder is characterised by oscillating periods of mania and depression. These changes in mood are sometimes accompanied by psychotic episodes and escalating impulsive and risk-taking behaviour, potentially leading to financial and social ruin. While people usually revert to normal mood and behaviour between these episodes, bipolar disorder has a severe impact on its sufferers, increasing suicide risk fifteen-fold.

Bipolar disorder is partly heritable, but we have a limited understanding of the specific genetic causes. By comparing the genetic sequences of many people who have the illness with those of many people who do not, a small number of genetic differences have been identified that individually account for a very small fraction (<1%) of disease risk, but which as a group contribute a larger fraction. However, a large proportion of the genes that contribute to bipolar disorder remain unknown, and it is also not well understood how genetic variation changes the way the brain functions to bring about the illness.

At NeuRA, we are embarking on an exciting new project to identify genes that contribute to the risk of bipolar disorder. Studying a large breadth of the population has been effective in identifying common disease-related variations in genes. However, by studying unique families that have a high density of illness (i.e. more than 4 individuals affected in a family tree), rare gene variants that contribute to disease are more readily identified. We will analyse genetic material from extended families to see whether the disease in those families is due to the collective impact of several rare gene variants.

Pedigree diagram of two families affected by bipolar disorder. Circles represent females and squares represent males.

Pedigree diagram of two families affected by bipolar disorder. Circles represent females and squares represent males.

Using a technology called massively-parallel sequencing we will compare the sequences of the expressed part of the genome (referred to as the ‘exome’: this part of the DNA only constitutes about 1% of the total genome, but is the portion of the genome which directly encodes proteins, which are essential to maintain normal functions of the body). This ‘next-generation’ sequencing technology dramatically increases the extent and accuracy of genetic data over previous methods. We will look for changes in genetic code, even down to a single nucleotide building block (i.e. the A, G, C, or T base), and determine whether there are an abnormal number of copies of a gene in an individual, since sometimes genes (or parts thereof) can be deleted or duplicated. Once these aberrations are identified, we will match them with linkage analysis data to determine whether they are likely to cause the disorder in a specific family. The molecular pathways affected by these genetic factors will be explored, relating novel genes to other genes previously implicated in disease risk.

Our data will be combined with data generated by other members of the international Bipolar Sequencing Consortium and Psychiatric Genomics Consortium to shed light on genes and molecular pathways that are commonly affected in people with bipolar disorder. Once the variants that lead to the loss of gene function in rare, highly penetrant forms of bipolar disorder are identified, the way in which disease risk is inherited will become clearer. This will lead to significant insights into what is actually wrong in the brains of people with this severe illness, and hopefully to new treatment strategies.

Beyond DNA code: epigenetics

Why is it that if you keep an active mental life by playing complicated board games or learning a language, or if you keep physically fit, you are less likely to succumb to dementia? A/Prof John Kwok is addressing this question by looking at how lifestyle can alter the function of genes related to dementia.

A/Prof John Kwok

A/Prof John Kwok

To do this, he is engaging with the burgeoning field of epigenetics. Genes have to be expressed (i.e. switched on or off) in a tightly regulated manner for our bodies to function correctly. For example, genes get switched on and off when we are born, or when we hit puberty, in response to hormones or tissue growth. While there are parts of our DNA that control how genes are switched on, there are also epigenetic factors, outside our DNA, that can do this. These factors act like a dimmer switch that changes the brightness of a light.

Diet, exercise, and mental activity can ‘dim the brightness’ of genes that might lead to illness, or enhance genes that promote brain health. Not only do these lifestyle factors change gene expression, but their effect might be inherited by the next generation, even if the relevant gene’s DNA sequence itself is not inherited. Understanding the mechanisms of how this happens is a focus of many areas of NeuRA’s work. The study of epigenetics is important in exploring new possibilities for health care.

Binge drinking and brain development

The effect underage drinking has on a developing brain is a question Prof Caroline Rae is seeking to answer. An alarming 19-23% of adolescents have binge-drunk in the last week, and this proportion is increasing in young females. 13% of all deaths in young Australians are a direct result of alcohol use, with alcohol use patterns in the young becoming more extreme.

Drunk teens with vodka bottle

At this age, the frontal lobes of teenagers are still developing. This development progresses into the early 30s, but most occurs in the teenage years. Alcohol is very likely to be affecting the development of the brain and its connections. The recent trend to mix high-caffeine drinks with alcohol could be exacerbating the problem.

Currently, there is very little scientific evidence on the effects of early binge drinking. Prof Rae and her collaborator, Prof Maree Teesson at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Center (NDARC), aim to uncover what happens in a teenager’s brain when binge drinking occurs. They will then identify the neurocognitive consequences of binge drinking, such as whether it affects memory, the ability to recognise emotions on other people’s faces, or the ability to inhibit impulses. The structural and functional effects of binge drinking on the brain are also under examination.

What about resilience and wellbeing? The flipside of mental illness

Dr Justine Gatt is an NHMRC Research Fellow who has recently joined the NeuRA team. Her research focuses on understanding the flipside of mental illness: why some people are more resilient to stress than others. It is hoped that these characteristics can be promoted in people who may be less resilient.

Dr Justine Gatt

Dr Justine Gatt

In Australia, nearly half of the population experience a mental disorder at some point in their lifetime, with the most common disorders being anxiety or depression. These disorders can occur in anyone, at any age, but adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable as their brain is still undergoing the final stages of development. Exposure to trauma or adversity during childhood or adulthood can often trigger symptoms of these disorders. On the other hand, the presence of certain protective factors may make an individual more resilient to the effects of stress and adversity. Notably, the absence of mental illness does not necessarily imply the presence of optimal mental health, and only a small proportion of people who have no mental illness symptoms are actually functioning optimally and are resilient.

Most psychiatric research has focused on understanding mechanisms of risk for different mental disorders and ways to diagnose and treat them. In comparison, there are very few studies that try to understand the mechanisms of resilience. Our research program aims to understand mental health using a new framework. This includes defining the neural underpinnings of resilience using techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) measures of brain function. We also examine the genetics of resilience using saliva samples for DNA analysis.

I am currently analysing data from over 1,600 healthy adult twins who participated in the TWIN-E Study of Emotional Wellbeing. Our team has developed a new questionnaire called COMPAS-W to measure wellbeing. It measures qualities, such as composure, positivity, self-worth and mastery over one’s environment, that are self-reported by study subjects. The questionnaire has been validated against objective psychological tests for symptoms of depression and anxiety. Using measures from this broad source base is helpful when linking biological variables like genetics and brain function, and allows us to explore how innate and environmental factors may moderate our wellbeing, with twin heritability estimates at 48%. The good news is that this means that wellbeing is malleable and can be promoted with intervention.

Comparing between twins allows us to determine the relative contribution of genetics and environment to changes in the volume of grey matter in different parts of the brain. Changes are highlighted in colour. (Gatt et al 2012, Twin Research and Human Genetics)

Comparing identical and non-identical twins allows us to determine the relative contribution of genetics and environment to differences in the volume of grey matter in different parts of the brain. Differences are highlighted in colour. (Gatt et al 2012, Twin Research and Human Genetics)

Another aspect of our research tests how interventions work to promote resilience. We are working with industry partners to test different e-health tools. One of these tools, called MyBrainSolutions, provides targeted, personalised emotional and cognitive solutions over the Internet. To measure resilience, we are testing games that promote positivity (e.g., gratitude training and positive affirmations) and stress management (e.g., the negative thought challenger and MyCalmBeat), as well as executive control games that aim to boost working memory, attention, and goal setting.

Understanding the biology of resilience is the first step towards personalised health solutions. It provides the foundation of features that could be nurtured in low-resilient individuals in order to prevent psychiatric illness. This ‘resilience bio-signature’ could be used as a diagnostic tool for predicting risk for developing mental illness following trauma. At-risk children or adults could then be provided with simple tools to train them to better adapt to life stressors and make them more resilient for the future.

Justine was recently awarded a competitive National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Career Development Fellowship to conduct this research program. As evidence of innovation and research excellence, Justine was lucky enough to receive the Commonwealth Health Minister’s Award for Excellence in Health and Medical Research in June 2014. The TWIN-E study was a collaborative study with Prof Leanne Williams (Stanford University, previously University of Sydney) as Chief Investigator and co-investigators Prof Peter Schofield (NeuRA), A/Prof Anthony Harris (University of Sydney), Prof Richard Clark (Flinders University), and Dr Justine Gatt (previously as ARC APDI postdoctoral research fellow, University of Sydney) and supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage (LP 0883621) grant with Brain Resource as industry partner.



Targetting the impact of HAND

HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND) is a major neurological complication in HIV-positive persons. It impairs cognitive activity, including memory, learning, attention, problem solving and decision making. Symptoms can vary from confusion to forgetfulness, behavioural changes, nerve pain and sometimes apathy.

Dr Lucette Cysique

Dr Lucette Cysique

The widespread use of combined antiretroviral treatment has reduced the incidence of the most severe form of the disorder, HIV-associated dementia, from 8% to 2%. However, the prevalence of mild to moderate degrees of neurocognitive deficits persists in up to 50% of sufferers, with phases of relapse and remission. Symptoms are not severe enough to be referred to as dementia, yet they impact on quality of life and independence.

Research questions being asked at NeuRA include: to what extent does HAND regress with antiretroviral treatment or cognitive training? Can early treatment reduce HAND incidence? Are HIV-positive persons more likely to have HAND as they age, and could this accelerate common neurodegenerative diseases? Do alcohol and substance use disorders exacerbate HAND? How can we improve the early detection of HAND using improved neuropsychological and/or neuroimaging methods?

To answer these questions, Dr. Lucette Cysique leads and co-leads several studies in Australia working with partners including the UNSW, St Vincent’s Hospital, The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, and HIV clinics in NSW. Internationally, the University of California San Diego and McGill University in Canada are also part of the research program. NeuRA’s research is pivotal to this exchange network.

A pilot study to assess if computerised cognitive training will improve symptoms of HAND is currently recruiting participants.

NeuRA Magazine #10 is here!

The Spring edition of the NeuRA magazine is ready to read!

This issue, we feature our new clinical trial to improve memory, language and learning in people with Down syndrome. We report our latest research findings, from new genetic sequences in mental illness to how testosterone affects brain growth. You can also read about our Books for Brains challenge.

Subscribe to read future print or email editions of the NeuRA magazine here to stay tuned into all NeuRA news.