The influence of sleep on brain development and psychopathology over adolescence

Research Opportunity
PhD students, Masters by Research
Department / Centre
Royal Melbourne Hospital
Primary Supervisor Email Number Webpage
Dr Vanessa Cropley +61 3 8344 1876 Personal web page
Co-supervisor Email Number Webpage
AProf Sarah Whittle Personal web page
Ms Rebecca Cooper

Summary Healthy sleep is critical for good health, including brain health. This study will examine the impact of sleep on the development of brain structure over adolescence and examine whether changes in these relationships increase the risk for the later development of psychopathology.

Project Details

Sleep is crucial to support overall wellbeing and optimal functioning of the body, particularly the central nervous system. Disturbances in sleep quality, duration and rhythmicity are common in psychiatric disorders, including mood-, anxiety- and psychosis-related illnesses, which typically first manifest in adolescence and young adulthood. Adolescence is a critical developmental period marked by changes in behaviour, in concert with substantial changes to both bodily and brain systems. This includes striking changes occurring to the structure of, and propensity for, sleep, as well as to the structure and function of the brain. For example, electrical activity of the brain during deep sleep, known as slow wave activity, decreases up to 60% across adolescence, and temporo-spatially parallels the maturation of brain structure during this time. These parallels between developmental sleep patterns and brain maturation suggest that sleep and brain development are closely intertwined.

It is common for many adolescents to experience disturbances in sleep, including having poor sleep quality and quantity, as well as shifting to later sleep and wake times. Poor sleep behaviour has been associated with impairments in cognition as well as a number of socio-emotional behaviours, including externalising and internalising behaviour, psychotic-like experiences and emotional dysregulation. However, while there is a robust relationship between poor sleep and psychopathology in adolescents, the mechanism(s) that might underlie this relationship are yet to be elucidated. Given that adolescence is a key period for the restructuring and maturation of the brain, it has been proposed that insufficient or disturbed sleep may impact on these processes to alter the trajectory and outcome of otherwise typical neurodevelopment. Nevertheless, few studies have examined the relationship between sleep, brain structure and psychopathology in adolescence, particularly using longitudinal designs that can measure changes in brain structure and sleep patterns, as well as mental health outcomes.

The current study will use imaging and associated sleep and psychopathology data from the Adolescent Developmental Study; a unique longitudinal study of Australian adolescents that seeks to elucidate biological and psychosocial predictors of mental health outcomes in adolescence and emerging adulthood. The aim of the study is to 1) characterize the relationship between sleep parameters and grey matter structure across adolescence; 2) determine whether sleep disturbance is related to, and predicts, later psychopathology; and 3) determine whether changes to brain structural development may mediate the relationship between sleep behavior and psychopathology.

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.

Faculty Research Themes


School Research Themes

Neuroscience & Psychiatry

Research Opportunities

PhD students, Masters by Research
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


Research Node

Royal Melbourne Hospital

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