Clinical, cognitive and biological correlates of early-life deprivation and threat in individuals with schizophrenia

Research Opportunity
PhD students, Masters by Research, Honours students
Royal Melbourne Hospital
Primary Supervisor Email Number Webpage
Dr Vanessa Cropley +61 3 8344 1876 Personal web page
Co-supervisor Email Number Webpage
Ms Megan Thomas

Summary This project aims to investigate how early experiences of deprivation and threat may be associated with various clinical, cognitive and biological characteristics in individuals with schizophrenia.

Project Details

Childhood adversity is commonly reported in people who suffer from schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. These adverse experiences are diverse and broadly conceptualised, encompassing childhood maltreatment (e.g. exposure to violence, abuse and neglect), parental loss and separation, and chronic poverty. The link between childhood adversity and psychosis has been the subject of intense investigation. Meta-analyses have reported that childhood adversity is reported in up to one-third of individuals with a diagnosis of psychosis, and is also associated with increased risk for subclinical psychosis and specific psychotic symptoms. Thus, childhood adversity is a significant risk factor for psychotic disorders, suggesting a need for early identification and intervention.

A growing number of studies have investigated the biological and psychological mechanisms that might underlie the link between childhood adversity and psychosis risk. However, these studies have typically examined the cumulative risk of adversity, without considering its severity or type. It has recently been proposed that a dimensional model of childhood adversity that disaggregates adversity into dimensions of deprivation and threat may have distinct effects on neurodevelopmental pathways, that then may confer risk for later psychopathology or development of psychiatric disorders. In this model, the dimension of threat reflects experiences involving harm or threat of harm to the child, whereas deprivation represents an absence of expected experiences including support/nurturance and cognitive and social stimulation. These dimensions are hypothesised to have broadly distinct associations with neurodevelopmental processes, with threat impacting neural circuits implicating stress and limbic-cortical pathways and accelerated biological aging, and deprivation influencing neural processes and circuits underlying learning and cognitive development. Although this model has gained traction, to date there are few studies that have examined childhood adversity from the framework of threat and deprivation in psychosis.

The aim of this project is to identify the clinical and biological correlates of early-life adversity from a framework of threat and deprivation in individuals with established schizophrenia compared to those without the disorder. In doing so the project will seek to determine whether people who have been exposed to these distinct types of adversity will show associations with specific clinical, cognitive and biological measures and whether these associations will be more pronounced (indicating greater detrimental effects of adversity) in people with schizophrenia. The project will use data from the Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank (ASRB); a large Australian register and storage facility of medical research data that links clinical and neuropsychological information, blood samples and MRI scans from people with schizophrenia and healthy non-psychiatric controls. Measures of childhood adversity will be parsed into a threat and deprivation dimension. These dimensions will then be tested for associations with relevant cognitive, brain (i.e. circuit-specific cortical thickness and volume, brain aging), biological (pro-inflammatory cytokines, telomere length) and clinical measures, in line with the dimensional model of adversity. Findings from the project may help to elucidate the biological and cognitive mechanisms linking childhood adversity to psychotic illness.

The student will be responsible for the development of the proposal and refinement of study hypotheses, conducting a literature review, processing of brain imaging scans and performing statistical analyses. Publication of results is expected at the end of the project. We are seeking an enthusiastic and motivated student who has an interest in psychiatry, psychology and psychobiological risk factors.

Faculty Research Themes


School Research Themes

Neuroscience & Psychiatry

Research Opportunities

PhD students, Masters by Research, Honours students
Students who are interested in joining this project will need to consider their elegibility as well as other requirements before contacting the supervisor of this research

Graduate Research application

Honours application

Key Contact

For further information about this research, please contact a supervisor.



Research Node

Royal Melbourne Hospital

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