All posts by Dr Chromo

Dr Chromo is a researcher at work and in the garden. In his early career, he was locked inside a dark room for a few years studying human chromosomes. Seven years ago he saw the light and started working with human early life cohorts, which made his life much more interesting. He now blames epigenetics for every chronic illness, spouts forth such phrases as "you are what your mother ate" and is just starting to produce evidence to support these ideas. He believes that students, General Practitioners, and the public need to know about his crazy ideas and frequently speaks to them to get feedback to inspire his research. For those who think it’s important, he has over 80 publications and an h-index of 24.

Why the question ‘fraternal or identical’ is important to all twins?

Twins come in two types: identical and fraternal. Identical twins result from the splitting of a very early embryo and share the same genetic sequence. Fraternal twins are as genetically different as any two siblings; they just happen to share a womb.

When twins are born, the first thing a parent asks is “are they identical?” If one’s a boy and one’s a girl, it’s easy – they are fraternal. With all the other twins, this is where things get complicated.

If we know for sure that the twins shared a placenta, there is a high chance they are identical. This leaves almost half of all twins who have a separate placenta and are the same sex and the only way to know for sure whether they are identical of fraternal is to get a DNA fingerprint (‘zygosity’) test done.

To complicate things even further, everyone, including strangers, family and friends seem to have an opinion about ‘identical or fraternal’ one way or another. Furthermore, many wrongly assume that identical twins always look and behave identical or that identical twins always share a placenta. These false assumptions have led to confusion, yet little research has been conducted with the twins community about understandings and assumptions.

So, at the 2012 Australian TwinsPlus Festival, we asked for twins and parents of twins who were in any way unsure of their genetic identity. In one day we got over 100 pairs!

We asked for their best guess on ‘identical or fraternal’; we asked about the reasons for their assumptions and we asked about the importance of accurate knowledge. Responses were compared with twins’ true genetic identity determined from cheek cell DNA they provided on the day.

We found that many parents and twins had been misinformed in the past but that knowledge of their true genetic status provided peace of mind and made them and their families happy, if a little surprised in some cases.

The main reasons given for the importance of such knowledge related to feelings of certainty, a sense of identity and concerns about health implications. For these reasons we propose that all same-sex twins and their parents should be advised to seek the certainty of a genetic test to minimise confusion and to provide peace of mind.

In the meantime, we have gathered more evidence in favour of universal zygosity testing for same-sex twins and we have a manuscript under review. Watch this space!

If you would like more details, see our publication which is also available for personal use on request.

How going beyond genetics reveals more about autism

Autism spectrum disorder (autism for short) describes a heterogeneous set of conditions characterised by problems with social communication, social interaction and repetitive or restrictive behaviours. It effects approximately one in a hundred people and is four times more common in males than females, although it has been suggested that girls may “hide” their symptoms more than boys.

We do not know what causes autism, but we do know that brain development is different when compared to those without autism, known as ‘neurotypicals’. Recent reports have led us to believe that autism is a genetic disorder. But there is more to life than genetic sequence. We are physiological beings; our genetic instruments are played at different tempos in different individuals and are likely contributing to our individual differences in health and wellbeing.

Our best guess is that genetic sequence accounts for, on average, just over three quarters of each individual’s autism. My team studies the ‘epigenetic’ musicians that play the symphony of life on our genes. Such musicians, in reality tiny molecules, are essential for making each tissue in our body different, despite having identical genes. Epigenetic musicians can often be influenced by environment. As they are often sidelined by genetic researchers, we chose to review what we know about them and to see what came out of the wash.

We first chose to briefly review the hundreds of genes whose sequences have been linked with autism. Luckily, the Simons Foundation had done this for us. They had even ranked the genes based on accumulated evidence. Interestingly, of the sixteen genes that are most strongly associated with autism, half code for proteins that act as epigenetic musicians. Many of these genes also play a role in the brain’s development.

Leaving gene sequences behind, we started at the level of the ‘shop floor’ of the body. We asked what is known about the physiology of people with autism. Among other things, it turns out that their immune systems are more easily disrupted than those in neurotypicals. They are more likely to experience inflammation, both in the blood and the brain, and this may explain why immune suppressants have sometimes been shown to reduce autistic symptoms temporarily.

Moving back one step in the production line, we looked for studies that had measured gene activity in people with autism. Those genes most frequently played too loud or too quiet were associated with brain development and function, and again, with immune state in the blood and brain.

Finally, we focused most of my attention on the epigenetic musicians that play the genes. A few researchers had taken a guess at which genes weren’t being played very well. Looking mostly in the brain, they found four or five genes whose epigenetic musicians weren’t working properly. The clearest evidence was for a gene called the oxytocin receptor, for which two studies showed differences in the blood and brain of those with autism compared with neurotypicals. Oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘love hormone’, regulates many of the behaviours associated with autism, so this is a plausible candidate for causing some of its characteristic features.

However, with almost twenty thousand genes in the genome, the quickest way to find genes is to look everywhere in our genomes, and current technology is advanced enough to do this. So that’s where we went next. One of the problems with this approach is that different researchers use different technologies to search for epigenetic changes to genes, which meant that comparing studies was hard. But surely, any gene identified by two independent studies must be worthy of more attention? So we carefully read through three genome-wide epigenetic studies of the brain, three of blood and one of cheek cells. Again, you can see that researchers look in different places for clues about the causes of autism.

Yet again, genes involved in brain development and the immune system floated to the top. As for specific genes, four emerged for which two independent studies showed a disruption to the epigenetic musicians that played them. None had been indicated previously as strong autism candidates, which may be a surprise to some. For two, very little is known about what they do in the body. The other two are known but not previously associated with autism. The first of these is likely to play a role in the sense of smell. A common feature of autism is a lower sensory threshold – senses, including smelling, working overtime. The second gene codes for an epigenetic musician required for early development and has been shown to be affected in immune cells in children whose mothers had low levels of folate during pregnancy. Interestingly, low folate levels have been linked with autism risk in a small number of studies.

So, what does all this information tell us? Firstly, as Aristotle said may years ago “One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day”, which means that we need to gather a lot more evidence that epigenetic changes in such genes are truly associated with autism. Then of course such changes could result from autism rather than cause autism, an idea that also needs testing.

However, there are numerous research teams around the world that can start giving attention to these ‘candidates’ and to the physiological processes such as inflammation that have not been identified in purely genetic studies. Should we be thinking of ways to minimise inflammation during pregnancy to lower the risk of autism? Should we be focusing on raising our children in low inflammatory environments? There is currently not enough evidence available for us to answer these questions and clearly, more research is needed.

Research is likely to lead to the development of tests at birth, which may be able to help (i) predict the likelihood of a child developing autism, and ultimately (ii) develop better informed treatments and (iii) alleviate some of the symptoms of some of the most distressing cases of autism. Interventions that lessen the symptoms of autism are currently being trialled. And to link prediction with treatment would be a great outcome, although as this can be a sensitive area for some in the autism community, we must progress by engagement.

With many thanks to my co-authors Tony Hannan and Jane Loke and to Jeanette Purkis and Dennis Crowley for helpful advice and proofreading.

From failure to success: how people are fighting back against fetal alcohol specrum disorder

This blog is my report from the 6th International Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in Vancouver in March 2015.

Alcohol. It makes us merry, loosens social constraints. It’s sold to us in a bewildering array of forms and is marketed incessantly to us as soon as we can legally drink. However, it is arguably the most abused drug in the world.

Excess alcohol damages our brain, heart, liver, pancreas and immune system and causes a variety of cancers. According to the World Health Organisation, 3.3. million deaths every year are attributable to alcohol abuse and 139 million years of healthy life is lost worldwide.

Drinking rates are rising, especially in women. According to prizewinning author and recovered alcoholic Ann Dowsett Johnston, some female students are now playing drinking games of “competitive blacking out” and some women are now getting chronic liver disease in their 20s. Moreover, these trends are not confined to any single socioeconomic group. At the heart of the problem, women are drinking alcohol as self-medication for depression, anxiety, loneliness, trauma and abuse. As Ann says, “alcohol is the modern woman’s steroid”.

This is sounding alarm bells because half of all pregnancies are unplanned and when consumed in excess in pregnancy, alcohol causes malformation of the embryo. From just 3-4 weeks old, a 1mm embryo is susceptible to alcohol even before a woman may know she is pregnant. As a result, a child is born every 30 seconds with a major brain disorder due to prenatal alcohol exposure (source, Denis Lamblin).

Brain disorders form part of the diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which is an umbrella term covering the spectrum of physical, behavioural and developmental outcomes that may occur after exposure to alcohol in the womb. Children with FASD have recognisable facial characteristics, such as a thin upper lip, small lower jaw, short nose, a flat midface and an indistinct philtrum, the groove that runs from the nose to the mouth.

fas_face-revisedLatest research has shown that alcohol slows down the development of a structure that forms during human development, called the neural crest, which gives rise to a diverse cells including the muscles and bones of the face and the certain parts of the brain. It effectively slows down development of all these structures meaning that they are often incompletely formed. 

Children born with FASD are at a huge disadvantage. More than 60% of kids with have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused (Charles Raineki). Nine out of every ten children with FASD are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. Youths with FASD are 19x more likely to be incarcerated and are much more likely to be the victims of crime themselves (Svetlana Popova). According to the National Organisation fior Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (NOFASD) “FASD is referred to as the ‘invisible disability’ as it often goes undetected, whether it be overlooked, ignored, attributed to another known non-genetic condition or even simply blamed on ‘poor’ parenting or post birth environments.”

What stood out for me at this conference was that delegates represented all stakeholders: researchers, doctors, social workers and even those directly affected by FASD. This gave the conference an emotionally-charged atmosphere. There was laughter and there were tears.

We heard the compelling life story of Paul Burke, father of a boy with FASD. He introduced his qualification as “OCD, ADHD and a DAD.” He stood in front of hundreds of people and admitted “I carry shame, I fed her drugs and alcohol when my wife was pregnant”” and followed it with “What do you do when your child says Daddy, why am I the way that I am?” and Daddy I don’t want to live anymore?”

We heard from Ann Dowsett Johnston that there are many reasons why a woman drinks even after she has discovered she is pregnant. Apart from the reasons mentioned above, women cite peer pressure, social norms and, as we have heard, pressure from their partners. One counsellor told me that one woman said that she couldn’t quit because her husband had told her that if she did, he would go with another woman.

We  heard of the many advances being made into characterising FASD using tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) , which showed that alcohol slows down the flow of “traffic” along the brain’s “superhighways” that connect different brain regions (Michael Charness and Kristina Uban). We saw the latest three dimensional facial scan data from Peter Hammond. We also saw how the two types of data can be superimposed and how studying developing rats could aid in our understanding of how FASD develops.

Research-Projects-6-300x225Joanne Weinberg presented data showing that prenatal alcohol exposure in offspring of rats showing twice the human legal limit for driving resulted in prolonged inflammatory responses to infection, even as adults. This may reflect that children with FASD have a higher risk of immune disorders. The brain has its own immune system and its own immune cells – the microglia, which ‘tidy up’ neurons that are “past their sell-by date”. Fulton Crews showed that alcohol exposure renders more neurons inactive and mobilise many more microglia than usual, thus disturbing the status quo in the brain’s immune system.

Another exciting topic presented was how environments can interact with genetic sequences. We are all carrying genetic ‘risk’ variants that are only ‘activated’ when you encounter a specific environment. Thus, genetic knowledge could eventually lead to avoiding specific environments. Tatiana Faroud showed a couple of examples that she has discovered. Canadian researcher Michael Kobor presented unpublished data of how alcohol can get “under the skin” and change epigenetic dimmer switches controlling gene activity.

In an exciting development, Cynthia Kane found that an anti-diabetes drug can prevent immune activation in the brain in an animal model, showing a faint glimmer of hope for future treatments in humans.

A great success story came from here in Australia. June Oscar told the amazing story of how, in the remote Western Australian town of Fitzroy crossing, she mobilised the local aboriginal community to rise up and say “enough is enough” to the high rate of FASD and alcohol-related violence, ill-health and suicide. In the Lililwan (“all our little ones”) project, she achieved a change in liquor licencing laws, and was successful at getting rid of “cowboy cops” from the police force, all despite encountering vilification, threats and ignorance.


June helped establish the Marulu (“precious and worth nurturing”) Unit  that offers help to parents and caregivers of FASD children and promotes  a “no alcohol” messages. We heard from paediatricians James Fiztpatrick and Liz Elliott on how things are slowly being turned around, for example the proportion of healthy birth weight babies is rising. However, there is much still to do, and all despite the government refusing to continue funding the project. James eloquently and passionately talks about the issue in this TED talk.

grogWe heard a similar story from Carolyn Hartness, a Native American, who is revising traditional cultural practices to help heal the “soul wound” of past social injustices, helping to tackle the root of the problem of alcohol abuse. Her culture taught her that “we are all responsible for the health of the next seven generations” and recommended “Even if you don’t care enough about yourself, care for the next generation”.

These messages wee echoed by the presence of multiple support groups who were given ample space among the commercial stands, which is a rarity at conferences. One of the most powerful campaigns was the “Too young to drink” campaign by Fabrica.


Support groups also used the power of social media to share their message, as illustrated by Yours Truly.

jeffAll-in-all, this was a great conference in which I was immersed in the subject matter that I am currently studying. It made me  understand the problem and the reasons why research can eventually lead back to the community.

What is autism?

The United Nations has declared that 2 April each year will be World Autism Awareness Day, with an aim of bringing more attention to the condition and help give a voice to the millions of individuals who are undiagnosed, misunderstood or looking for help.

An estimated one in 100 people has autism and autism is diagnosed in almost four times as many boys as girls.

Just as autism is a spectrum of disorders, there are many answers that add up to give the bigger picture of autism. For this I enlisted the help of a number of different autism experts: doctors, psychologists, people living with autism and support groups. Thanks to everyone who gave up their time.

This blog is for all those who wish to know something more about the spectrum that is autism. I have provided a number of links for those interested in finding out more.


Doctors and scientists

“Autism is a description of behavioural characteristics which may bring a person great challenges but also great strengths,” Dr Lauren Taylor, a Psychologist from the University of Western Australia. Lauren recommends people seek information from the National Autistic Society, the leading UK charity for people with autism.

“Autism is term that describes a certain pattern of social, communication and other behaviours in humans, and all of the wonders and challenges that these bring.” – Professor Andrew Whitehouse, a psychologist. Andrew represents the Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Autism CRC).

“Autism is an umbrella term for a set of highly heterogeneous neurodevelopmental conditions which share difficulties in social communication and restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests. These are generally present from early in life with onset variable over the first two years. In the absence of known causes and cures the best approach to supporting individuals with autism is early identification, diagnosis and early intervention. Most people with autism will need some supports throughout their lives.” – Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, Director, Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University

“Autism is when subtle changes in neuronal wiring turn everyday social interaction and sensory processing into a monumental challenge.” Elisa Hill – University of Melbourne. Elisa recommends the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) web site.

“Autism is a spectrum of developmental conditions, caused by a variable and complex combination of genetic and environmental factors, in which altered brain maturation affects various behaviours, including social interaction and communication”. – Professor Tony Hannan, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Melbourne


People living with autism

“Autism is a difference in experiencing, being and doing” – Dr Emma Goodall who is on the autism spectrum.

“As an autistic woman, wife and mother, autism is just a different way of sensing the world. No cure needed.” – Tina Richardson, person on the spectrum.

“Autism is part of what makes me me. I like being me so it’s hard to say it in overly negative terms” – Jeanette Purkis, also on the autism spectrum

“The good, the bad and everything in between.”- Dr Sara Hassan, mother. Sara also went on to say:

“People often wonder what it’s like having a child with autism. It’s best described as follows: it’s having a child with the impulsivity of a toddler but with the strength of an adult. You are constantly on your guard, during every waking minute. It’s the inability to truly relax at the park or at the beach. It’s rejecting kind invitations to friends’ homes because you cannot deal with the chaos that may ensue when your child’s impulsivity rears its head. It’s the staying up at night worrying who will take over the reins of care once you’re gone. It’s the crippling fear of expanding your family, because one child with a disability is hard enough. It’s the disdainful stare of strangers devoid of understanding or compassion. It’s the tears of gratitude at every small accomplishment. It’s the promise that one day, every tear, every hardship, every sacrifice, will be worth it. It is the kindness, compassion and support of those around us that make this journey bearable.”

Next, in the three awesome YouTube clips below, young people talk about what it’s like to live with autism and advise on how to treat a person with autism with respect and dignity, like you would any other person:

Just Like You , Spectrospective and ‘In My Mind’.

Finally, read this guide: How to Explain Autism to People .

Watch, read and learn.


Support groups

AMAZE is the peak organisation for Autism Spectrum Disorder in the state of Victoria. Here is an abbreviated version of their definition of autism:

“Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition which affects individuals in two main areas:

  • Individuals have impaired communication and social interaction
  • Individuals have restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities

ASD affects the way that individuals are able to interact with others and they often find the world to be a confusing place. Difficulty communicating can result in ‘melt downs’ – this differs from a tantrum as the individual does not choose to have a meltdown.

Individuals with ASD often have sensory sensitivities – they may be under- or over-sensitive to any of the five senses.

Every individual with ASD is different.

Some people with ASD have other conditions as well, such as speech and language difficulties, intellectual disability, sleep problems, attention problems, epilepsy, anxiety and depression and difficulties with fine and gross motor (movement) skills.”


Other useful and trusted web sites

The Raising Children Network is an award-winning website that connects Australians with tips and tools for everyday parenting, from pregnancy to teens. The Murdoch Childrens Research Institute provides expert content and is a member organisation of Raising Children Network.

The website’s information on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) describe it as “a group of conditions that cause people to have difficulties with social communication, to have narrow interests and repetitive behaviours, or to be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to taste, touch, sight or sounds.

They also say that autism spectrum disorder is “a brain-based condition – that is, where the brain hasn’t developed in a typical way.”

They also highlight that:

“The prevalence of ASD has risen since the 1990s. Research suggests that the apparent increase is at least partly because of:

  • increased awareness about ASD, so more cases are being identified
  • changes in the criteria for diagnosing ASD.”

They go on to say that:

“Evidence also strongly suggests a genetic basis to autism spectrum disorders – that is, the condition might come from the complex interaction of several genes involved in brain development. One specific gene is unlikely to be responsible for ASD. Rather, it might be that several genes combine and act together. Researchers have found many possible genes that might play a role in the development of ASD. It’s also possible that different gene combinations might explain the differences seen in ASD – for example, why one child is more sensitive to sounds than another.

We don’t yet know exactly what causes autism spectrum disorder. In fact, it’s suspected that there might be several causes. Among these are brain development and genetic factors. ASD is not caused by anything that parents do or don’t do while raising their child”.

Their support for parents:

“Any young child might behave in the ways listed above at different developmental stages. This isn’t necessarily a sign of ASD. You know your child better than anyone – the key is to talk to someone if you have any concerns about your child’s development.

If you’re concerned about your child’s development, talk to your health care provider about a developmental assessment. Finding out for sure is the first step to helping your child and getting services and programs suited to your child’s needs.

It’s important to get help and support as soon as possible. The sooner children get intervention services, the more effective these services can be.

A paediatrician, psychiatrist, psychologist or other professional trained in ASD can diagnose ASD. They’ll use a combination of behaviour tests (watching the child play and interact) and interviews with parents about the child’s development.”

Suggested Raising Children Network links:

New links from Publichealthcorps December 2016

This blog will also appear on the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute blog

DNA methylation biomarkers: cancer and beyond

Epigenetics is many things to many people. To some, it is a away to explain the mechanisms by which molecular ‘musicians’ bring the instruments that are our genes to life. To others, it is a away to explain the effect of the environment on the genome. I concur with all of the above but where I believe that epigenetics will be most useful is in helping to diagnose and predict disease. Last year a colleague and I wrote a review about this. We are talking biomarkers – naturally-occurring characteristics by which a disease can be identified or monitored. Biomarkers can reflect past environmental exposures, predict disease onset or course, or determine a patient’s response to therapy. Many people don’t realise it but this is already happening in cancer: diagnostic and predictive biomarkers for cancer based on the epigenetic mark of DNA methylation are being used in the clinic. Each of these clinical biomarkers is the result of multiple studies all showing the same result – ‘replication’ Other diseases are not far behind cancer even though their epigenetic changes are smaller in magnitude and need replication. Notable papers have shown that DNA methylation measured at birth can predict obesity during childhood (and here). Others identified potential early markers of type 1 diabetes and potential predictors of response to weight loss in adulthood. Neurodevelpmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia are also waiting in the wings. Most importantly, as most chronic diseases originate in the womb and leave a latent imprint on the epigenome, this can act as a ‘ticking time bomb’ that, with the ‘wrong’ environmental measures and genetic predisposition, cause full blown heart, liver or brain disorder. If we can read the epigenetic changes predictive of disease risk in the ‘book of pregnancy’, we can not only understand the mechanisms of chronic disease but we can detect them way before symptoms occur. Thus early detection will mean early intervention and a paradigm shift in healthcare from treatment to prevention. Yes,we have a little further to go, but this is a dream worth chasing. I am banking my career on it.

Work in progress – awesome video clips themed on the early origins of chronic disease

I have already blogged about the developmental origins of disease: why you are what you eat, what your parents ate and how it’s never too late to change your genes. This blog in an ongoing project to collect great video clips related to this phenomenon because it is important to learn about how to get our message across as researchers. Let me know if you have any more for me to add along the way. Here goes. Click on the images to play the video clips.

Social media Revolution” by Evan Kutsko

socialmediaThis clip is from a marketing company but you get the message – engage with people through social media. Some of the facts contained within this clip are stunning. Here is a slightly different version on YouTube

“The Mother ‘Hood” from Similac

The message is that parenthood in general is much more important than how you raise your children.


“What happens in the womb can last a lifetime” by

BBBNarrated by non other than Sir Robert Winston and focusing on maternal stress and supporting bot parents during pregnancy. The You Tube version can be found here.

“Charlie’s Story” from

charlieAn example of a possible effect of early life stress on problem behavior (on the same page as the “what happens in the womb” clip).

“Brain Hero” from The Alberta family Wellness initiative

Brain2Great animation that shows how family, community and policy makers can change the course of a child’s development.

“How brains are built – the core story of brain development” from the Alberta family Wellness initiative

Brain1Another great animation on the same theme as above.

“Tipping the scale towards positive outcomes” by the Royal Children’s Hospital and The Frameworks Institute

FrameVisualising how genetic and modifiable environmental factors can interact to influence the “see-saw” of risk for chronic disease.

“Epigenome: the symphony in your cells” from the journal ‘Nature’, Feb 2015

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 11.48.42The genes are the instruments and epigenetics is how they are played.

“Too young to drink” by Fabrica

TYTDA powerful message against drinking alcohol in pregnancy.

Launched on September 9th 2014, on the occasion of the International Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Day, #TooYoungToDrink is a new communication campaign to raise awareness of the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy conceived by #Fabrica for the European FASD Alliance.
FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) is a range of problems caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol which can include birth defects, learning disorders, behavioral problems, and mental illness.
For further information:

“Gene’s Eye View” from Baba Brinkman

GIVGreat rap about genetic mutations, disease and evolution from the album The Rap Guide to Medicine. Ingenious.

The Sugar of Death (S.O.P) from Dunk The Junk


Another way that hip-hop is being used to target messages to our youth about the harmful effects of junk food.

“The story of Gravida” by Gravida New Zealand

grav“From the mouth of babes” How New Zealand is aiming to understand and reverse the early origins of noncommunicable disease

“The Ghost of Earth Day” by Master Shift

maxresdefaultMore about saving the planet than Early Life Origins but a great concept that the traditional owners of the land are ashamed of our current lifestyles. Maybe for DOHaD, the Native American could be replaced by “The Ghost of Children Future”? This wold say that we will be haunted by our future children if we don’t look after own health.

“Health research: making the right decision for me” by the Nuffield Foundation


Great clip explaining to children about what it means to participate in ethically-driven research. See also here for more details

‘Little Things Matter – the impact of toxins on the developing brain’ by the Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

LTMThis clip explains how ‘small’ amounts of heavy metals and other toxins can have a significant effect on population health, with a focus on exposure of young children.

More to come…

Other resources

The Raising Children network: award-winning web site supporting all aspects of child health

Gravida: a New Zealand government-funded Centre of Research Excellence that brings together leading biomedical, clinical and animal scientists from across New Zealand and around the world.

Enjoying the roller coaster – how to be a resilient student

This short guide was developed for students in the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, the Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne and the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. However, it contains advice about building resilience and dealing with mental illness that will be of use to students anywhere.

Like many things in life, including roller-coasters, completing a graduate or postgraduate degree can be both enjoyable and scary. Building resilience means that you will enjoy the highs and protect yourself from over-reacting to, and speeding your recovery from, the lows. Such lows could include:

  • Exams
  • Public speaking
  • Pressure to write reports/theses/papers
  • Pressure to finish within the allotted time
  • Financial stress
  • Loneliness
  • Disagreements with supervisors
  • Issues with work/life balance

  So, how can we build up resilience? There are many different ways in which each of us can build up our resilience. These can be grouped as:

  1. Keeping fit
  2. Eating well
  3. Looking after our mind, emotions and spirit

All three are equally important and overwhelming evidence has shown that the brain and the body influence each other. In addition, there is mounting evidence that all three factors can change your genes for the better. Apart from the links in groups 1 and 2 above, this guide will focus mainly on the third component: the mind   How do I look after my mind? You can look after your mind using a number of different techniques, a few of which are outlined below. Mindfulness is the act of focusing your awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It is simple to learn and practice, and needs no specialized equipment or mantra. Many workplaces run regular mindfulness sessions and mindfulness resources can be found here. Meditation in a broad sense involves turning the mind and attention inward and focusing on a single thought, image, object or feeling. It can take a number of different forms and may or may not involve mantras. Some workplaces have prayer and meditation spaces that provides a welcoming sanctuary for silence, prayer, contemplation or meditation. Prayer: Yes, praying is another kind of mindfulness or meditation. You can contact your local religious or spiritual centre for more information. Other resources for looking after your mind can be found at Smiling Mind, Beyond Blue and Sane Australia. Recognising the lows A mental illness is a health problem that significantly affects how a person thinks, behaves and interacts with other people. Such illnesses include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders and personality disorders. They are caused by a combination of genetics, stress at home or work, and may be exacerbated by substance use, for example alcohol or drugs. Each year, a quarter of all those of student age (18-24) will experience mental illness and a third of all people in this age group will have had an episode of mental illness by the age of 25. Two-thirds of those with a mental illness do not access any treatment. Over 4 million students, or 5% of the total student population, have terminated their course due to mental illness. You are not alone. Act now. Treatment If you think you have a mental illness, there are a number of ways that can seek help   Immediate help:

  • Pick up the phone and call one of the following:
    • Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636
    • Sane Australia on 1800 18 7263
    • Samaritans on 13 52 47
    • Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14
  • Have a web-based chat or email with one of the following:

Help from those around you Talk to your supervisor, mentor or colleagues. A mentor is s useful contact to set up – ideally they are not connected with your immediate work group and can provide independent advice Speak to your GP: there are a number of Medicare-covered mental health services you can use. See also the Australian Dept. of Health web sites here and here. Seek resources from within your place of work. Locally we have the following:   University of Melbourne University of Melbourne Counselling and Psychological Services Includes a guide for students with a mental illness. Individual counselling Information and self-help resources Other universities will have similar resources. Other resources and further reading Thedesk: a free online program aimed at providing Australian tertiary students with strategies and skills for success and wellbeing during their time at university or TAFE. Information for secondary schools and tertiary students from BeyondBlue Headspace (“Is it just me?”) is the National Youth Mental Health Foundation. We help young people who are going through a tough time. Smiling Mind: is a unique web and App-based program developed by a team of psychologists with expertise in youth and adolescent therapy. Apps and websites that can complement treatment. More, helpful contacts and websites University Student Mental Health: the Australian Context – Australian Medical Students’ Association A report. Great, short article on “Professional resilience” The Thesis Whisperer blog: PhD detachment and PhD Grief and How to survive a mid-PhD crisis. With thanks to Nathalie Martinek and others who have provided information and links for this guide.

See also this great article from Cathy Sorbara: 7 Ways PhD Students And Academics Can Deal With Stress, Anxiety And Depression


Everybody Hurts – REM. Hang on.