Newcastle hosts meeting of (brain-mapping) minds

Friday, 11 October 2019

Professor Michael Breakspear joined the University of Newcastle in early-2019 to establish a new brain imaging group at the Hunter Medical Research Institute’s neuroimaging facility.

Professor Michael Breakspear

When we heard about an upcoming conference of the Organisation for Human Brain Mapping we were eager to know more about this fascinating area of research. Our enquiries led us to Professor Michael Breakspear who joined the University of Newcastle in early-2019 to establish a new brain imaging group at the Hunter Medical Research Institute’s neuroimaging facility.

I enjoyed my early education. I grew up with my mother and three older sisters and we moved between Sydney and Canberra. The state high school I attended in the ACT was very progressive – it had a Macintosh lab, even back then in the early-80s, so I learnt computer programming and in Year 10 Science we were given six months to conduct a single experiment.

At the end of high school, someone suggested that I should do Medicine. My mother was horrified as she thought I would do Mathematics. I was quite idealistic about going to University, I wanted to understand everything from the Theory of Relativity to how the brain works.

Rather than dropping out of Medicine, I combined it with Mathematics and Philosophy - a complicated combination. And so began two decades of studying, training, international exchanges and publishing across those disciplines. After medical internship, I started training in Psychiatry but also completed a post-doc in Physics.

By the time I was in my late-30s I had a very unusual skill set. I was approached to become the inaugural Head of Mental Health Research with the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and in the next decade, that program grew to around 100 researchers. During this time I worked as a Psychiatrist in Brisbane’s Women’s Correctional Centre, I became an NHMRC Principal Research Fellow, and received funding for research into dementia and mood disorders.

My team used longitudinal imaging and phenotypic data to study young people with a first-degree relative with bipolar disorder, who are ten times more likely than the rest of the population to develop the disorder themselves.

I started to notice a lot of friends making the move to Newcastle. A friend was the neighbour of the External Relations Manager at Hunter Medical Research Institute and they arranged for me to do a tour. I saw the brand new, state-of-the-art 3T MRI scanner and decided I should pitch to the University of Newcastle my funding and Fellowship. It took over a year to sort out but here I am; I started at HMRI in early-2019 and am building a team of statisticians, imaging physicists, people doing brain modelling, pattern recognition and statistics. It takes time to build from scratch.

In layman’s terms, we’re developing diagnostic tests for people with mental illness. We're looking at their brain activity when they’re doing things with the aim of using that information to help develop diagnostic tests and predict outcomes. To put it another way, at the moment if you’ve got a mental illness you go and see a doctor, they take a history and based on that they give you a presumptive diagnosis. There’s no diagnostic tests and the whole diagnostic system in Psychiatry is based on clusters of symptoms which may not actually be very well clustered. In every other branch of Medicine, a doctor will diagnose you using a series of tests, so we’re trying to develop the same approach in mental health.

It’s called Precision Psychiatry. The goal is genetic testing and brain imaging tests; the genetic tests are not that far away and they may not say you’ve got bipolar, for example, but they may say this medication is better for you than this other medication or this medication will give you side effects. The imaging tests are probably 10 years away from being available but it’s promising.

Newcastle is a really vibrant city. I think it’s beautiful. My wife and I have been to the vegan markets, we’ve been to a Brazilian dance party, some music exhibits in an old prison cell … and I can hop on my bike and I’m at the beach in five minutes. I’ve been surfing nearly every day. It’s a really friendly community and I think there’s a lot of scope here for doing what I’m hoping to do.

I helped to initiate the Australian chapter of the Organisation for Human Brain Mapping. The idea of the chapters is to have meetings in their respective areas that are cheapish to attend because not everyone can travel internationally each year. It makes it more accessible, particularly for Early Career Researchers.

At the upcoming conference in Newcastle, we have an international and two national plenary speakers, a lot of opportunities for Early Career Researchers to present, we have an ECR networking breakfast, travel bursaries and then we’ve got contributed presentations.

It’s an opportunity to share knowledge, for ECRs to work on their presentation skills, and put it on their CV that they’ve presented at national conference. Importantly, it’s a rare opportunity to meet international colleagues. The idea is to build a community in Australia of like-minded scientists and to get critical mass as we’ve got a great imaging community in Australia and a lot of infrastructure.

The conference will appeal to people from many disciplines. For Mathematicians and Physicists, on Day 1 there’s a lot of sophisticated computational modelling and MR physics; people from Psychiatry will find a lot of cognitive neuroscience; people in Medicine will see talks on mental health and neuro-disorders on Day 2. And they’ll see the scanner too - a lot of people may not realise we’ve got one of Australia’s cutting-edge MR scanners.

The University of Newcastle will host the OHBM Australia - Hunter Neuroimaging Conference, Wednesday 16 October – Friday 18 October 2019.

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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.