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A brain for change

Dr Natalie Matosin
Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute

Tackling mental health diagnosis and interventions one brain at a time

More adults are reporting extreme levels of stress than ever before. Traumatised populations, such as refugees and other displaced people, are on the rise. Understanding how stress manifests as mental illness is a global priority with the World Health Organization predicting that illnesses caused by stress will affect one in three people by 2030.

Dr Natalie Matosin, a brain biologist and National Health and Medical Research Council CJ Martin Early Career Research Fellow, is on the case: she's seeking to understand how stressors manifest as mental illness and how these effects might be passed on through generations. To do this, Dr Matosin studies the genetic and molecular basis of severe psychiatric conditions in both living people as well as in the brains of people who have passed away but lived with mental illness.

Her joint affiliation with the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich – arguably the world’s leading institution in this field – has supported and expanded her research program in Australia.

“Previously I had done a lot of work understanding what molecules are altered in people with mental illness. Whereas in Germany I was working towards understanding how and why they had changed in the first place,” she says.

While living in Munich, Dr Matosin witnessed the influx of Syrian refugees in Germany, and saw first-hand how the effects of stress and trauma not only affected individuals and families, as well as social, economic and healthcare systems. After learning that the effects of stress might be biologically and passed down through generations, Dr Matosin was inspired to direct her research to tackle these problems.

Syrian refugees
Photo shows young Syrian male refugees striking in front of Budapest Keleti railway station in 2015 during the European refugee crisis. Credit: Mstyslav Chernov [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

With her return to Australia, Dr Matosin is enjoying being at the helm of the development of a major research program called TRIP (the Trauma and Refugee Intervention Project) to study refugee populations in Wollongong. While still in its infancy, the project is hoping to attract funding for its diverse and international team which represents the fields of neurobiology, genetics, psychology, social science and health policy.

“The idea is that we will not only produce scientific discoveries, but we’ll also have the team to tackle the social and political aspects of what we are doing as well,” Dr Matosin says of the interdisciplinary team.

Dr Matosin’s research goals with TRIP are to understand the long-term impacts of traumatic experiences on the body’s physiology at the molecular level, and how that contributes to the development of mental illnesses such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. She will also use epigenetics – the study of how our genes are switched on and off – to understand the transmission of mental health conditions to children. Furthermore, her research will identify feasible interventions to treat or prevent mental illness from developing in refugees and other traumatised populations.

Dr Matosin is determined to curate a career that not only makes a scholarly impact, but that is also connected to the community by contributing to a number of research projects as well as sharing the value of scientific research with the community.

Her collaborations with teams at institutes around the world, including the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, John Hopkins University, the University of Iceland, deCODE Genetics, the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, and the Max Planck Society, have garnered international attention. She is a multi-award winning scientist who was recognised as a "young star" by Forbes magazine on their 30 Under 30 list in 2017 and was named as one of Australia's 15 graduates to watch in 2015 by Women’s Agenda.

Dr Matosin attributes her recognition so far to being prepared to engage with communities impacted by her research program, as well as the broader public.

“As scientists, we need to communicate our research, and be more publicly available. Only in this way will we really be able to get the support to make a difference,” she explains.

Dr Natalie Matosin's TEDxHamburg talk: Getting science from Einstein to your granny