Understanding how stress leads to subtle alterations in physiology that manifest as psychiatric syndromes constitutes the most compelling questions facing science and society today. Dr Natalie Matosin is a molecular neurobiologist at the University of Wollongong who researches how stress contributes to the development of severe psychiatric disorders. Natalie completed her PhD at the University of Wollongong in 2015 and then undertook postdoctoral training at UNSW. She was then awarded fellowships from the NHMRC (CJ Martin), Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and International Brain Research Organisation to join the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Germany. Natalie trained for two years with Dr Elisabeth Binder, who is one of the world’s leaders in epigenetics and stress research. Natalie’s research aim is to explore how genetic and epigenetic factors underlie risk to stress-induced psychiatric disorders by exerting effects on transcription and protein regulation of signalling pathways in the brain.
Abstract – Annual Research Symposium – 6 November 2019
Trauma-related genetic, epigenetic and molecular factors contributing to mental illness – what do we know?
The interaction of genes with environmental factors – especially extreme stress – dramatically increases individual risk for psychopathology. This likely occurs through lasting changes in stress signalling pathways that cause adaptations in physiology to help an individual cope with future stress. These adaptive mechanisms occur in all individuals exposed to similar levels of stress or trauma, yet, only a fraction (~15%) go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which persists in only ~30% of cases, or an associated disorder such as anxiety or depression. On the other hand, some individuals who have lived through periods of extreme stress have an astonishing ability to recover. Understanding resilience holds the key for developing treatments and interventions to transform the at-risk into resilient individuals.
Refugees constitute an extremely stressed population. Through exposure to war-related trauma and post-migration stressors, the risk for refugees to develop severe psychiatric problems compared to the general population is increased. Longitudinal studies indicate that post-traumatic stress reactions in refugees may persist and even increase over time. However, there are substantial differences in how individuals respond to extreme stress, so while some refugees develop psychopathology, the majority are resilient. New evidence also indicates that risk or resilience to the effects of extreme stress may be biologically passed on to offspring via specific molecular processes, adding to a sustained impact in these populations. There remain several critical unanswered questions: How does extreme stress lead to psychiatric illness? How are some individuals resilient? How is this risk/resilience passed to future generations? I will address these questions from a genetic, epigenetic and molecular perspective and discuss ways in which molecular biomarkers can be identified and utilised to ultimately identify individuals at risk and improve their resilience.
Go to the Research Symposium page for more details.