Order of mind

Driven by a desire to make a difference to the lives of vulnerable young adults, Dr Emma Barkus is focused on understanding the causes of a devastating mental illness.

Tall Barkus

Schizophrenia generally manifests in late adolescence or early adulthood. Affecting approximately one per cent of the world’s population, its diagnosis means a lifelong dependence on medication, which have adverse side-effects like excessive weight gain, and necessitates support for daily functioning. 

In an effort to understand what causes schizophrenia, Barkus is investigating how factors such as illicit drugs, alcohol, thinking processes, stress, and personality traits confer their toxic effect on vulnerable young minds.

Her first major breakthrough, achieved during her PhD, was demonstrating that auditory hallucinations in healthy individuals activate the same brain areas as those seen in patients with schizophrenia. Later, she developed the only questionnaires to capture the experiences people report after cannabis and consequently opened up a new approach to considering cannabis as a risk factor for psychosis.

Barkus’ motivation to contribute to make a difference in young adults is also reflected by her commitment to teaching and pastoral care, as Director of Undergraduate Studies and currently Acting Head of Students in the School of Psychology. She supervises five PhD students in the areas of substance use, stress, thinking processes and other risk factors for schizophrenia with the aim of encouraging “future leaders in the field”.

Moving forward, Barkus is determined to continue to help unravel the complexities of what causes schizophrenia. Barkus and her team of collaborators are making the approach from a number of angles, including identifying which factors might work together to increase the risk of psychosis, and investigating which mental health symptoms reduce the likelihood people will seek help when they need to. 

“We need to understand how these factors converge in vulnerable young people to develop better targeted drug and psychological treatments to ensure young people obtain the necessary help at critical points in their lives.”

Looking for participants for our trial

Schizophrenia is a serious mental health disorder which 1 in every 100 Australians will develop at some point in their lives.
Schizophrenia is often lifelong, with symptoms presenting in young adulthood which means people are struck down at a point where they are striving for independence.
Schizophrenia is a syndrome which means it has a cluster of symptoms which co-occur together. One of these symptoms is inefficiency in thinking processes such as attention, memory and learning. We are interested in determining whether one part of cannabis called THCV has the potential to improve the efficiency of thinking in people who are prone to psychotic experiences after cannabis such as hearing voices which are not there and having strong and unusual thoughts.
Cannabis is often thought to have a negative effect on mental health. However, cannabis is actually made up of a large number of chemical compounds some of which may be used to improve people’s thinking and well being. We think THCV may be one such compound.
We are looking for people who have used cannabis in the past and have had a wide variety of experiences when using the drug. We think the experiences people have had after smoking cannabis may offer clues to whether their brain is sensitive to the beneficial effects of THCV.
Anyone who would like to know more about this please visit: