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Changing Minds: How UniSC research could help shape the future of mental health – and vice versa

23 Aug 2022

Could brain scans soon be as commonplace as cancer check-ups?

Could your smartwatch soon monitor your mental health as easily as it does your heartrate?

How far away are we from diagnosing depression, before symptoms appear?

It’s these kinds of questions UniSC Professor Daniel Hermens and futurist Dr Colin Russo discussed at UniSC’s webinar ‘The Future of Predicting Mental Illness: A New Australian Discovery’.

It follows ground-breaking ‘brain finger-printing’ research from the Thompson Institute, mapping the uniqueness of brain activity patterns in adolescents with a view to predict potential mental health problems. Professor Daniel Hermens believes it already has the potential to shape future policy.

“Mental health is ‘the cancer of young people’ and I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect that one day it will be something that we screen for with standard tests like we use to screen for cancer,” he said.

“When you’re over 50 you get a letter from the government saying you should do a test for bowel cancer. Maybe in the future there’ll be a letter from the government saying ‘go and get your government-funded, subsidised mental-health scan’ and go see a clinician and talk about the results.”

Dealing in ‘maybes’ is all in a day’s work for Dr Colin Russo.

As a futurist, it’s his job to track emerging trends and technologies and how they’ll shape the world of tomorrow and inform future policy.

“That’s the challenge here. Trying to address and anticipate new technologies,” said Dr Russo.

But it’s a two-sided coin.

In the case of research like brain-fingerprinting, it’s not just a matter of how it will shape the future, but how current and future technologies will shape it.

“Today, you’ve got a whole range of people who use wearable technology like smartwatches to monitor their health – whether that be for heart rate etc. - to try and get ahead of changes to their health and improve their potential outlook,” said Dr Russo.

“There’s people who could benefit from brain monitoring done this way for the same kinds of reasons.”

“It’s already possible with EEG (electroencephalogram) measures. You can have EEG measures and get feedback to a smartwatch which can tell you about electrical activity in your brain,” said Professor Hermens.

“It’s happening already. There are wearable devices that are very minimal.”

These are all real possibilities – thanks in part to the Thompson Institute’s research. But what does perfect future for mental health and predicting mental distress look like to Professor Hermens?

“Personalised psychiatry is what it’s called - or personalised mental health,” said Professor Hermens

“Cancer researchers have screens for different types of cancers. Brain scientists want to have scans or tests to predict the likelihood of specific types of disorders and be confident about it.” he said.

“That is the holy grail.”

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