NHMRC / RG Menzies Fellow to focus on early detection of bipolar disorder in young people

10 November 2015

Dr Alexis Whitton 2016 NHMRC / RG Menzies FellowDr Alexis Whitton has been awarded the 2016 NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellowship to improve the early detection of bipolar disorder.

The Minister for Health, Sussan Ley, has announced the recipients of the NHMRC early career research grants for 2016 and Dr Whitton has been successful in securing funding as the CJ Martin Overseas Biomedical Fellow.

Dr Whitton, from Sydney, is at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital in Boston, where she will commence her research project before heading back to Sydney’s Brain & Mind Institute to work with depressed young adults who are seeking treatment through the Headspace Youth Mental Health Program.

Dr Whitton says current early intervention efforts are thwarted by a lack of reliable diagnostic markers that can detect bipolar disorder in individuals who present for treatment with depression.

Bipolar disorder is a mental condition marked by alternating periods of elation and depression.

Dr Whitton’s research will focus on early signs of abnormal brain functioning which help predict the emergence of manic symptoms in depressed young adults.

“In my academic and professional work as well as my clinical interactions with patients suffering from bipolar disorder, I was regularly struck by the fundamental difficulty many had in obtaining a correct diagnosis.”

Currently it takes an average of 10.2 years and four doctors for an individual with bipolar disorder to obtain a correct diagnosis after the onset of symptoms.

“While there are a lot of effective treatments for bipolar disorder that can work really well, often it takes many years and trial and error before a correct diagnosis can be made. You need a clear history of mania or hypomania to be diagnosed under the current diagnostic protocols.

“Many people experience several debilitating depressive episodes before any signs of mania emerge. These episodes often occur in the early 20s when people are just establishing their careers or starting a family, which is why the impact of the disease is so great”, Dr Whitton said

The disease costs Australia an estimated $1.6 billion annually, with the overall burden of disease being equivalent to that of melanoma.

Menzies Foundation CEO, Sarah Hardy, welcomed the news that Dr Whitton had been awarded the NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellowship.

“This is an important area of work for young Australians struggling with bipolar disorder and we are thrilled to be able to support a young leader who wants to expand on this area of medical research and bring the results back to Australia to make a real difference.”

Dr Whitton studied her Bachelor of Psychology and Joint Masters of Clinical Psychology and PhD at the University of New South Wales. She was also involved in developing Australia’s first stand-alone web and mobile phone intervention for depression, anxiety and stress known as ‘myCompass’ at the Black Dog Institute.