Groundbreaking brain research is exploring how stress contributes to the development of mental illness and it is hoped it will help develop a system to identify at-risk individuals.

The World Health Organisation has predicted by 2030, one third of all disease burden in the world, will be caused by stress.

Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) researcher Dr Natalie Matosin said the research would enhance ability to identify an individual’s susceptibility to stress.

“We urgently need an improved understanding of the detailed and widespread effects of stress on human biology,” Dr Matosin said.

“With this research, we may be able to develop a framework to identify people who are vulnerable to the effects of stress and improve their resilience with appropriate methods.”

Dr Matosin studied brains donated by people who had mental illness to better understand the biological effects of stress and how it increased the risk of mental illness.

“Studying a brain isn’t about getting the whole brain and dissecting it like you see in television shows,” she said.

“Tiny slivers of brain no larger than the size of a pea are used to pinpoint differences in the shapes, numbers, orientation and connection of brain cells. The research can provide fundamental knowledge needed to develop new treatments and interventions to be used in the future.”

Clinical psychologist Johanna Meyer welcomed the study and explained it is important to identify the connection between severe mental illness and stress.

“It is reassuring that in the future there will be more grounded research that explains the connection between stress, immunity and mental illness,” Dr Meyer.

Dr Meyer, who has extensive experience in the treatment of stress-related illness, uses evidence-based therapies to help her clients.

“Stress can have a huge impact on your mental health, and the long-term effects can vary dramatically both physically and mentally,” she said.

“It is a terrible, yet common problem. The research will be of great use for psychologists in the formulation of strategies and interventions and make us feel better equipped to help our clients struggling.”

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