Neurodevelopmental trajectories and biopsychosocial risk factors in autism and schizophrenia

Research Opportunity
PhD students, Masters by Research, Honours students, Master of Biomedical Science
Number of Honour Places Available
2
Number of Master Places Available
2
Department / Centre
Psychiatry
Primary Supervisor Email Number Webpage
Professor Christos Pantelis cpant@unimelb.edu.au Personal web page
Co-supervisor Email Number Webpage
Dr Cassandra Wannan wannanc@unimelb.edu.au Personal web page

Summary Children with neurodevelopmental disorders often have worse outcomes than typically developing children on a range of measures, including education, mental health, social dysfunction, vocational achievement, and conduct problems. Furthermore, overlap between the symptoms of many neurodevelopmental disorders, along with intra-illness heterogeneity, results in frequent misdiagnosis, ineffective treatment, and increased disability in affected children. There is therefore an urgent need to identify biopsychosocial markers that characterise specific neurodevelopmental disorders and impact on illness severity and outcomes. The key aims of our research are therefore to (1) map the developmental trajectories of cognition, behaviour, and brain structure and function in autism-spectrum disorder (ASD) and schizotypal disorder of childhood (SDC) over critical periods of brain development, and (2) identify the candidate biopsychosocial risk/resilience markers that might impact these trajectories and illness outcomes. Our work will consider a range of biopsychosocial markers, including genetics, inflammation, clinical profiles, early life stress and physiological stress reactivity, and psychosocial indices such as socioeconomic status and parenting styles.

Project Details

Autism is a disorder of early childhood, whilst psychosis and schizophrenia typically develop in adolescence or early adulthood. However, there exists a sub-group of children who experience disabling psychotic-like perceptions (e.g. hallucinations), thoughts, and behaviours , similar to those observed in individuals with schizophrenia. These symptoms are characterised as Schizotypal Disorder of Childhood (SDC).Children with SDC experience fantasy world preoccupation that disengages them from other activities, leading to a significant detrimental impact on their mental health and wellbeing, social behaviour, peer relationships, and education, and withdrawal from their (often distraught) family and friends. Furthermore, these children are at a higher risk of developing schizophrenia. However, SDC is critically under-researched and overlooked clinically, frequently being misdiagnosed as Autism-spectrum disorder (ASD). This leads to delays in effective treatment and increased disability in these children. This project aims to gain a clear understanding of the distinctive features of SDC that distinguish it from ASD and typically developing children, including the neurodevelopmental trajectories of these disorders, and the risk/resilience factors influencing illness severity and functional outcomes. This will be critical for developing effective early prevention and intervention strategies to change the trajectory, ameliorate the disability and effectively treat symptoms.

This project involves a multi-disciplinary team of collaborators working across national and international sites, including The University of Melbourne, the Royal Children’s Hospital, Monash University, James Cook University, and the University of Bonn. It would suit a student with an interest in neurodevelopment from childhood to adolescence, and there will be opportunities to assist with data collection with children and their families.

The student will have the opportunity to carve out a project aligned to their interests across one or more aspects of the study, including neuroimaging, cognition, genetics, early stress and stress reactivity, psychosocial factors, and inflammation.



Faculty Research Themes

School Research Themes

Neuroscience & Psychiatry



Research Opportunities

PhD students, Masters by Research, Honours students, Master of Biomedical Science
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.

Department / Centre

Psychiatry


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