Published: Monday 16 March 2020
The researchers and twins may be 10-years-older but are excited to be joining forces again for the second phase of a landmark study to better understand the factors in resilience. Researcher Justine Gatt explains her findings so far, why she is inviting nearly 1600 twins from her first study in 2009 to return in 2020, and what she hopes to discover in this next phase.
Dr Justine Gatt is Group Leader and Senior Research Scientist at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA); a Senior Research Fellow, School of Psychology, UNSW; and Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Discipline of Psychiatry, University of Sydney.
What is the overall purpose of your research?
We are interested in understanding the genetic, environmental, psychological and neural factors that underlie mental wellbeing and resilience. We are using multiple methods that include online questionnaires, cognitive testing and MRI scanning to investigate long-term changes (over 10 years) in behavioural and brain function in healthy adult twins.
(Please note: the MRI component of the study may experience delays due to the COVID-19 situation. Involved twins will be kept updated by the researchers)
You undertook the first phase of your research in 2009? What did you find?
The data from the first phase enabled us to develop a new comprehensive measure of wellbeing. Using this new scale, we have since found various factors associated with higher wellbeing, including lower depression and anxiety symptoms, more superior cognitive functioning including better working memory and attention, and even alterations in grey matter volume in certain parts of the brain.
Why are you undertaking this second phase in 2020? What are you hoping to learn this time?
We are aiming to evaluate changes in wellbeing and mental health outcomes over a 10-year period. We want to see if we can identify the trajectories towards resilience versus vulnerability to mental health problems over time, and we want to identify the factors that determine these pathways.
These factors may include lifestyle factors, positive or negative life events, or certain coping styles. By measuring changes in the brain over the same period, we will identify the impact of these different wellness strategies on brain structure and function.
How will this research make a difference?
If we can figure out the factors that contribute to a person’s level of resilience, maybe we can use them to develop strategies and interventions to help those who may be more vulnerable to the impacts of stress, adversity or trauma.
Who is involved in this latest phase?
I’m leading a research team based at Neuroscience Research Australia and the University of New South Wales at Randwick in Sydney. The other co-investigators include Professor Robin Turner from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and Professor Leanne Williams from Stanford University.
With the help of TRA, we are inviting all 1600 identical and fraternal twins who originally participated in our Emotional Wellbeing Study about 10 years ago to join this new phase. Originally, the project was based at Westmead Hospital, University of Sydney.
Why do you involve twins in your research?
Examining twins allow us the unique opportunity to disentangle the relative contributions of genetics and environment to different relationships. We know that monozygotic (identical) twins share 100% of their genes, while dizygotic (fraternal) twins only share 50% of their genes.
By running statistical models, we can see whether a specific trait is more similar in monozygotic twins (compared to dizygotic), which would mean that the trait is more influenced by genes than environment. This is particularly interesting in terms of wellbeing and resilience as it tells us the factors that are driven by our genetics, versus those that are driven by our environment and life experiences.
How were twins involved in the first phase? Will it be different for the second phase?
In the first phase of the study about 1600 twins across Australia were asked to complete questionnaires and cognitive tests online at home. They were also sent DNA saliva kits to mail back to us. Some of the twins who lived in Sydney or Adelaide were asked to come into our lab and complete some EEG brain testing. In addition, some of the twins who lived in Sydney, and did these EEG brain tests, were asked to complete a MRI brain scanning session. After 12 months, all twins were contacted to repeat the online tests again at home.
In this second phase of the study, we’ll be approaching the same 1600 twins to complete some questionnaires and cognitive tests again at home. Many of these tests will be the same as the first-phase round of online tests. However, we’ve also included some new questionnaires and cognitive tests in this second phase. These new tests will allow us to examine other factors we have not yet measured such as coping styles.
The Sydney twins - who originally completed the MRI brain scans - will also be asked to visit the Gatt Lab at Neuroscience Research Australia in Randwick and undergo some MRI brain scans again (please see comments above about delays in this testing due to COVID-19). Some of the tests will be the same as the first phase, but there are some new tasks too.
When do you expect findings from this phase to be available? Will there be further phases?
We’ve been running the second phase since June 2019 and we’ll continue to conduct participant testing over the next year. We hope to finish data collection for this phase by the end of this year, as this would allow us the time to analyse the data in 2021 onwards. There is also a planned third phase of this project whereby participants will be invited to complete the online questionnaires and cognitive tests once again in two years’ time.