This Anzac Day, Australia and New Zealand commemorate 100 years since the beginning of WWI’s Gallipoli, a campaign famous for its heroism and infamous both for its terrible death toll and the horrific conditions on the battlefield.
Despite generations of war veterans developing mental health issues as a result of their service, it was not until 1980 that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was formally recognised. Even today, PTSD remains a misunderstood, misdiagnosed condition, for which there is no widely effective treatment.
Currently diagnosis of PTSD in the military relies on paper-and-pencil tests and screening interviews by psychologists who assess servicemen and women pre-deployment, pre-extraction and post-extraction.
Now, researchers are turning to brain-imaging to improve their understanding of the condition. They’re trying to identify the physical characteristics that may help explain why some individuals subjected to trauma develop PTSD, while others exposed to identical trauma do not.
“You can be in the same armoured vehicle and only one of the four in the vehicle will subsequently develop mental health issues,” explains Miriam Dwyer, CEO of the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation.
“When it comes to breaking your arm, we know how to fix it; or if you have blood-pressure issues, we can sort that out. But when it comes to mental health issues and the brain, we have a long way to go.”
Miriam is excited to see the outcomes of a major study by the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation into the physical health and genetics of 300 Australian Vietnam veterans. Of the 300, half have PTSD, and half do not; and in a sub-study, 100 of the veterans (50 sufferers and an equal control group of non-sufferers) have undergone MRI brain imaging.
Stephen Rose from CSIRO is charged with analysing the 100 sets of images.
“We’re looking at the volume of particular parts of the brain that may predispose individuals to PTSD, believed to be the hippocampus and the amygdala, which are in the temporal lobe and some frontal lobe structures as well, particularly the anterior cingulate. These parts of the brain seem to be very vulnerable to injury, which may predispose people to PTSD, especially in the military,” he says.
“We can measure the volume of these regions of the brain very accurately and look at cohorts of Vietnam veterans who have PTSD, and compare those with cohorts of Vietnam veterans who don’t have PTSD. That may give us some insight into whether these parts of the brain are associated with PTSD, or predispose people to developing it.”
The study is also measuring the brain’s white-matter tracks using a combination of diffusion imaging and a technique called tractography to see the effect of mild traumatic injury on the brain.
These kinds of invisible injuries are prevalent in the military and can occur, for example, when a soldier is near an explosion, even if there is no observable physical injury.
“What is postulated is that having a mild head injury may increase the accumulation of toxic material in these vulnerable parts of the brain, and may increase the risk of people going on to have PTSD. There’s a lot of interest from the military in measuring these subtle brain injuries.”
Tracers developed by GE are also being used to study biochemical changes inside the brain that indicate either short- or long-term damage to brain tissue, which may be the beginning of a disease developing. These enable specialists to look for ‘hotspots’ in the brain, which previously was only possible post-mortem.
Stephen stresses that the team’s research is in its early days, but he’s excited by its potential to help.
As Miriam says, “we understand the consequences from a psychological perspective of PTSD, but not the specific causes”, which is why this research is so important.
“We know what the symptoms are when you develop PTSD, but the treatments are still not great. The standard treatment is exposure therapy, and that works well in about one-third of patients; doesn’t work at all in another third and it can actually have a negative impact for some patients if delivered incorrectly.
“There aren’t any very good drugs in development for PTSD, probably because of the complex combination of emotional, cognitive, behavioural and biological symptoms. We’re still really trying to understand how we can effectively engage and treat all sufferers—not just one-third.”
This is an edited extract from GE Reports. Read the full feature here.
Ever wondered how hot your home gets in summer or how cold it is in winter? Think solar is a good idea but not quite sure if it would work on your roof? Wondering if it’s worth investing in a rainwater tank?
Now with a new interactive tool we helped develop called My Climate, residents of Melbourne’s City of Port Phillip can do their own internet-sleuthing to answer these questions. What’s more, this could kick-start a trend that would see residents around the country taking more responsibility for these types of decisions.
My Climate uses thermal mapping taken from aerial flyovers and seven temporary weather stations to show land surface temperatures, winter heat loss, rainfall and the solar potential of all buildings in the region.
Working with the City of Port Phillip and Monash University, we originally developed My Climate to inform urban planning decisions. It didn’t take long to realise how useful the data would be to the whole community.
“With this data you can calculate the most appropriate solar system for your home, where it would best be located and how much it could potentially save you in electricity costs and Co2 emissions. You can also measure rainfall and calculate the cost of improving your ceiling insulation,” Port Phillip Mayor Amanda Stevens says.
“If thermal imaging shows your neighbour’s home is cooler than yours, it may mean they have better insulation, or cool air from their air-conditioner is leaking outside the home.
“This easy-to-use tool has the potential to add real value to people’s homes and on a larger scale can help tackle the impacts of climate change.”
Dr Mahesh Prakash and his group from our Digital productivity Flagship helped develop the analytics and software component of the interactive tool. He says his team is now looking to expand My Climate to include other layers of information such as natural hazard hotspots and optimum tree coverage. He would also like to see it rolled out to other Councils.
Explore the My Climate tool on the City of Port Phillip website.
Heart rhythm disease is a life-threatening, electrical disorder that stops the heart from pumping blood effectively. It is a lethal condition that is responsible for around 12 per cent of Australian deaths each year.
In order to open the door to better diagnosis and treatment for heart rhythm disease, we’ve been working with the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute to develop our very own ‘virtual heart’. What’s more, we’ve done this using the same technology that drives your favourite computer games.
Impressively, when we ran a simulation through the virtual heart, it was able to model hundreds of thousands of different heart beats. This then allowed scientists to screen all of those heart beats, and search for abnormalities.
According to the Victor Chang Institute’s Dr Adam Hill who led the research, this has taken us a step closer to understanding rhythm disturbances in our most vital muscle.
“This research is hugely exciting! We were able to identify why some patients have abnormal ECG signals, and how a person’s genetic background can affect the severity of their disease,” he says.
Analysis on this scale has simply never been possible before. The simulation took just ten days, thanks to the computational grunt of CSIRO’s Bragg supercomputer cluster, which combines traditional CPUs with more powerful graphics processing units or GPUs.
GPUs have typically been used to render complex graphics in computer games. However they can also be used to accelerate scientific computing by multi-tasking on hundreds of computing cores.
By comparison, if you were to try to do the same simulation using a standard desktop PC, it would take 21 years to get the job done.
Adam hopes the new technology will help doctors read ECGs more accurately, which will mean faster, more accurate diagnosis of heart rhythm disease. By understanding why the same disorder affects people differently, the right treatment can be given to the right patients.
Scientists at the Victor Chang Institute are now using these discoveries to develop automatic computerised tools for diagnosing heart rhythm disorders.
Read more about how we’re using data and digital technologies to tackle health challenges on our website.
With the festive season in full swing, many of us will soon find ourselves sitting around a dinner table, tugging on a Christmas cracker then poring over the goodies found within.
Traditionally, cracker etiquette dictates that the person left holding the larger portion is dubbed the cracker king (with flimsy paper crown to prove it).
However, have you ever wondered what ‘cracker strategy’ you should employ to increase your chance of securing the win and looking like one of the Wise Men?
Naturally, our researchers Emma Huang and David Clifford along with their equally-festive colleague from the University of Queensland Kim-Anh le Cao, were wondering the same thing. So they turned to science to find out.
Firstly, they got cracking on identifying three cracking cracker-pulling techniques:
- The ‘angle’ strategy: A firm two handed grip, tilting the cracker between 20 and 55 degrees downwards, and applying a steady force with no torque
- The ‘passive aggressive’ strategy: a firm two handed grip at no angle, no pulling at all, and letting the other person do the work
- The ‘control’ strategy: typical of Christmas parties around the world, where both participants pull at no particular angle, but roughly parallel to the floor
In this festive study, volunteers were randomly paired, employing different strategies multiple times in order to leave us with robust data about the validity of each technique.
So, what were the results?
If you’re an angler, we’ve got bad news. With just a 40 per cent win rate, this technique isn’t likely to secure your spot as cracker king anytime soon. The traditional ‘control approach’ produced the results closest to random chance, resulting in a win 53 per cent of the time.
For those saying bah-humbug to the passive aggressive approach, you might want to rethink things. With an impressive 92 per cent success rate, it turns out the key to securing the win is to let your partner do all the hard work.
As our researchers describe in their study, the passivity of this approach could have important implications for future Christmas parties. Aside from the obvious reduction in cracker-related injuries, the strategy has another major benefit – it is easy to employ with subtlety, unlike strategies involving an angle, which must surely arouse suspicions in your pulling partner.
While we wish you well on your cracker journey, we’ll leave you with a word of caution – while the ‘do nothing’ approach does have a high success rate, it only works if you’re the only one who knows about it. If both you and your partner employ the same strategy, the party could stretch on forever, resulting in a burnt dinner and no paper crown for you.
Meet Yogi Kanagasingam. Yogi works at our Australian e-Health Research Centre and his vision is to change the way eye care is delivered around the world to prevent needless blindness.
A ‘serial inventor’, Yogi has developed a number of low-cost diagnostic technologies that are used to take images of our eyes. These devices are helping in the early detection of serious conditions, ranging from those that directly threaten sight, through to stroke and Alzheimer’s Disease.
By focusing on affordable, mobile solutions, he is bringing quality eye care to thousands of patients who might otherwise have gone without.
Recognising this passion and dedication, Yogi has been named as a WA finalist in the 2015 Australian of the Year Awards. Here are just some of the sight-saving (and often life-saving) projects he’s working on:
Saving sight in remote communities
However due to the remoteness of some Australian communities, it can be very difficult for people to access this type of specialist care.
That’s why we’ve been working with our partners in Western Australia (Gold Fields and Great Southern) and Queensland (Torres Strait Islands) to set up remote eye screening – giving hundreds of people access to eye testing services.
This is possible thanks to technology Yogi has developed called Remote-I.
Using Remote-I, local clinicians are able to conduct routine retinal screenings, often as part of scheduled health clinic visits. The system then sends hi-res retinal images to a city-based specialist ophthalmologist via satellite broadband – allowing them to accurately diagnose and refer patients who need immediate treatment.
A global vision for eye care
Now Yogi and his team are taking Remote-I to the world. For the past year, they’ve been working with the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Centre in China’s Guangdong Province to introduce the technology throughout a network of ten hospitals.
With a population of over 100 million people in Guangdong, local health professionals are now using the technology to screen up to 1000 patients per week. That’s a lot of eye tests.
As well as giving patients access to specialist care, this project is also providing the research team with valuable data about blood vessel patterns in retinas. This will allow them to design algorithms that could be used to automatically detect particular eye diseases, aiding diagnosis in routine screenings.
Early detection of Alzheimer’s
Using curcumin (a compound in the spice turmeric), Yogi and his team have also developed a spice-infused eye test for Alzheimer’s disease.
Patients ingest the curcumin which binds to beta-amyloid plaques (the sticky proteins that indicate Alzheimer’s) showing up in retinal scans as bright spots which can be counted and measured.
Early results show the amount of plaque in the retina closely mirrors the amount in the brain. If confirmed, this could be the beginnings of an easy, non-invasive test for early detection of Alzheimer’s – maybe up to 20 years before cognitive symptoms appear.
We’re proud as punch of Yogi. As well as the groundbreaking work he is doing with us here at CSIRO, he is also giving back to the community in his personal time. Yogi is actively involved with local Rotary Clubs, including Freshwater Bay Rotary in WA where he helps promote regular eye screening for primary school children. This can make a big difference to students, as early detection of vision abnormalities can improve both academic and sports performances.
We wish Yogi all the best this Saturday when the WA Australian of the Year will be announced at Government House. WA’s winner will then join recipients from other States and Territories as finalists for the National Awards, to be announced on Australia Day 2015.
Read more about our eHealth research on our website.
By Emily Lehmann
Flying robot enthusiasts can breathe a deep sigh of relief, because Outback Joe has finally been saved after spending eight years lost in the bush.
This week, sixteen teams from around the world competed in the search and rescue mission to save our beloved Akubra-clad mannequin pal, who has year after year, been strategically placed in the Queensland outback as part of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Challenge.
After eight years running, this was the first time that a team – not just one, but four– successfully delivered the emergency package to save Outback Joe, with the top team taking home a grand prize of $50 000.
Each team was tasked with developing their own custom-made UAV (a.k.a flying robot or drone) and navigating it through a course to first locate Outback Joe, and then secondly deliver him a life-saving bottle of water.
The competition brings some of the latest international aerial robotics technology and puts it to the test to highlight its value for use in search and rescue efforts.
These flying machines can cruise at various speeds – some are just like helicopters – and can mostly fly for 40 to 60 minutes at a time. They rely on modern computers and sensors, such as GPS, to figure out where they need to go in order to perform tasks that the operator has asked it to do.
The clever minds behind the winning ‘bot are from CanberraUAV and managed to score the most points out those that completed the challenge – two other Australian teams and one from the United States.
The UAV Challenge also involves a delivery challenge for high school teams, taking place earlier in the week. Students build their flying robots from scratch, designing and developing the software and hardware needed for their own rescue mission for Outback Joe.
This year’s winner was the all-girl DareDivas team from Mueller College at Redcliffe with a $5 000 prize.
We run the UAV Challenge annually in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology.