USC PhD student Ben Isbel showing a volunteer the neuroscience equipment at the Sunshine Coast Mind & Neuroscience - Thompson Institute.
USC PhD student Ben Isbel showing a volunteer the neuroscience equipment at the Sunshine Coast Mind & Neuroscience - Thompson Institute. University of the Sunshine Coast

$9m funding enables vital Coast mental health research

HEALTH professionals and GPs will be closer to being able to treat mental health issues with as good a "toolkit" as they have for physical conditions with research plans now being put in action on the Sunshine Coast.

An almost $9 million funding windfall to Sunshine Coast Mind & Neuroscience (Thompson Institute) will help grow an accurate understanding of underlying neurobiology of mental disorders, allowing treatment plans for disorders and not just their symptoms to be developed.

"The problem with mental illness is the person can actually physically look well," Thompson Institute director Professor Jim Lagopolous said.

"And if you do just a standard type of x-ray or an MRI, generally speaking you don't find any changes."

He said doctors had little choice but to send people with genuine mental health concerns away, because they didn't fit the criteria for an individual illness.

Research planned at the institute would pull together medical evidence needed to adjust these criteria.

"We really have to understand and get that medical evidence, because we know it (the mental illness) exists...these aren't figments of peoples' imaginations," Prof Lagopolous said.

"People are genuinely sick when they have a mental illness."

The Federal Government yesterday announced it would contribute $5 million toward the institute, while philanthropists Roy and Nola Thompson have donated nearly $4 million for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine to enable imaging aspects of the research.

This leaves Prof Lagopolous and his team with more than $1 million to fundraise, but he said he was confident a team of researchers led by professors would be assembled by the end of the year, and some projects had already started.

Located at the new health precinct in Birtinya, the Thompson Institute's team of 20 clinicians helps 1000 people with mental health challenges from dementia to depression and eating disorders every year.

With the new research, clinicians would help researchers frame questions around local issues including dementia, youth mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide prevention.

Research would explore underlying neurobiology and gather evidence to inform treatment approaches, which would then be fed back to clinicians, Prof Lagopolous said.

"We are on the cusp of something very, very exciting here on the Sunshine Coast," he said.

"We've got this massive brand new hospital with the latest clinical services setting up and the spot that we are located here in Birtinya is shaping up to be a little bit of a health hub.

"We're going to see in the next short while, tech companies coming in and health companies coming in, and making this into a real health hub.

"It's a very exciting time for both provision of health services as well as (for) research and bio-tech companies in this region. I think we can really make a name for our region in this field."