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Multimillion-dollar centre to bolster research and treatment of debilitating disorder

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The University of the Sunshine Coast has officially opened an $18.5 million facility aimed at addressing one of Australia’s most pressing mental health issues.

The National PTSD Research Centre, the first of its kind in the country, was formally launched on Wednesday to help experts understand, educate, advocate and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD can cause debilitating symptoms and affects nearly half of Australians directly or indirectly.

Based at UniSC’s Thompson Institute at Birtinya, the centre features advanced neuroimaging technology, medication-assisted therapy rooms, long-stay clinical observation rooms, a clinical trials facility and a laboratory for molecular research.

There are also plans to establish a zebrafish facility and Australia’s first PTSD ‘brain bank’, allowing researchers to gather more structural information about the brain.

UniSC Vice-Chancellor and president Professor Helen Bartlett said the university was addressing the most pressing needs of the community.

“The opening of the National PTSD Research Centre marks a major commitment to fully addressing PTSD, to understand it, find solutions and integrate them into everyday healthcare for so many Australians,” she said.

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“Our research will focus on the development of new treatments and interventions for PTSD, investigation of medication-assisted therapies and identification of biomarkers and early risk identification.

“By conducting this world-class research under the same roof as clinical services, education and advocacy for patients and their carers, we are then able to quickly translate research breakthroughs into solutions for our community.

“The centre is based at our Thompson Institute, which already has a reputation for world-class research into youth mental health, healthy ageing and suicidality.”

UniSC Chancellor and retired Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston said an estimated 1.4 million Australians were directly affected by PTSD, particularly veterans and first responders, and the effects could be “completely debilitating”.

“Many sufferers experience terrible flashbacks, nightmares and emotions long after the traumatic event, disrupting their lives enormously,” he said.

“A significant proportion of active and retired military personnel, as well as a significant number of emergency service first responders, are impacted by PTSD.  They suffer a higher prevalence of PTSD than the general Australian population.

The centre offers a range of research and treatment.

“People who have lived through other traumatic experiences such as domestic violence, crime, abuse or disasters may also suffer.”

Currently, patients can experience trial and error with medication, and 60 percent of current treatments not effective past six months.

“In order to effectively prevent, diagnose and treat PTSD, we need breakthroughs in the neurobiology that underpins the disorder, its causes, and other impacts of traumatic stress,” Sir Angus said.

“And for this reason, we are extremely proud to have appointed one of the world’s leading PTSD experts Professor Alain Brunet to lead UniSC’s Thompson Institute, and the National PTSD Research Centre.”

Professor Brunet has a wealth of research, scholarship and clinical experience, as well as expertise in clinical trials design and implementation which will be beneficial to the centre, but also across the Institute’s ambitious research into youth mental health, suicidality and healthy ageing.

The centre is supported by $8.3 million of federal government funding, additional funding from Sunshine Coast philanthropists, with the rest funded by the university.

Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention and Assistant Minister for Rural and Regional Health Emma McBride said world-class PTSD research required support.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder can be a long-lasting and severe impact on individuals and their families,” she said.

The centre boasts a variety of high-tech equipment and facilities.

“While it can affect people in a range of circumstances, it’s especially prevalent among men and women who have served in our armed forces.

“Our government is committed to giving veterans experiencing PTSD access to the best treatments possible, and that means supporting world-class research,” she said.

Member for Fisher Andrew Wallace celebrated the milestone.

“This project is a testament to the power of collaboration – UniSC, the Thompson Institute and the federal government coming together to deliver real change for veterans, first responders, and those struggling with PTSD,” he said.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to see this vital initiative come to life, building on the institute’s proven track record of improving mental health outcomes.”

Professor Brunet, from McGill University, has dedicated his career in psychology to understanding the mental health impacts of trauma and pioneering new treatments.

“With the gifted team of researchers that we are building, my goal is that the Thompson Institute will become a powerhouse for understanding the neuroscience of PTSD,” he said.

“One of the key areas of focus of the Thompson Institute is to deliver rapid translation of research to the community, which is really the hallmark of a great modern research centre.

He said there would be a particular research focus on climate change, disasters and pre-natal maternal stress.

The official launch of the research centre. The official launch of the research centre included Federal Member for Fisher Andrew Wallace, Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell, Assistant Minister for Mental Health Emma McBride, UniSC Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Helen Bartlett, UniSC Chancellor Sir Angus Houston, and UniSC Thompson Institute incoming director Professor Alain Brunet.

“There are many traumatic events happening in Australia – bushfire, floods, and more recently two very public attacks, reminding us that we need to get the support rapidly out into the community. That was part of my decision in joining the Thompson Institute, knowing that they are working so closely to deliver the outcomes of our science to the people, quickly,” he said.

“Stress and trauma-related disorders are a global public health problem, and my focus is on characterising the risk factors which will allow us to change the way we treat PTSD.”

Already underway at National PTSD Research Centre are clinical trials into novel treatments; research into PTSD biomarkers and the impacts of early-life trauma, a traumatic stress component of a postgraduate diploma; trauma-informed care industry training; and community resilience programs.

Professor Brunet is internationally recognised for developing reconsolidation therapy, an evidence-based treatment for gradually decreasing the strength of emotional memories for those who have experienced trauma.

In effect, the treatment is ‘editing’ how the memory is experienced.

Understanding memories of negative events was critical to understanding and treating PTSD, he said.

“If you can turn down that memory and remove the sting, and understand the neurobiology of how the brain creates, stores, retrieves and modifies memories, you would achieve a giant leap in therapeutics,” he said.

The centre is based at the Thompson Institute at Birtinya.

It takes two assessments and six treatment sessions for 70 per cent to 80 per cent of participants to report positive benefits. Comparatively, cognitive behavioural therapy takes about six months.

For most, symptoms improve by 50 per cent. For others, the therapy allows them to leave the house, rejoin the workforce or resume their role as a parent.

This efficiency makes it suitable for urgent care situations, with Professor Brunet soon leading a delegation to war-affected Ukraine to teach this reconsolidation therapy to local clinicians.

Professor Brunet is keen to pair the therapy with promising psychedelic assisted therapies currently being trialed at UniSC’s Thompson Institute. For example, a treatment that proved effective in treating suicidality, is showing promise in treating PTSD also, with the final findings still to be published.

He looked forward to building on UniSC’s Thompson Institute’s global reputation and promising work into potential biomarkers for predicting PTSD.

“Biomarkers can be any kind of biological trait, like our genes, hormones, or even brain structures, that can be used to tell us about someone’s risk of developing a condition, whether they have a condition or what treatments might work best for them,” he said.

“Identifying biomarkers for PTSD is very challenging because the condition can be quite different for different people, but I’m excited to follow the promising research in this space already happening at UniSC.”

Professor Brunet’s earlier research included the development of the world’s first tool to assess the recalled amount of distress experienced at the time of a traumatic event.

Dr Alain Brunet will lead the national research centre.

He is also particularly interested in progressing Australia’s research into maternal stress in the face of climate change and disasters such as bushfires and floods.

“It’s well-established now that disasters have a myriad of small but measurable effects on the unborn child,” he said.

Professor Brunet was a psychology masters student at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal when there was a mass shooting on campus.

Fourteen women were killed and another 14 people injured.

The response to that event, Professor Brunet said, was alarmingly disorganised.

Professors were offering spontaneous therapy sessions, but little formalised support was available at the time.

“I was appalled by the fact that we didn’t really know how to intervene,” he said.

“And it occurred to me that there was a contribution to be made, that we could probably do a much better job than that, and that was the beginning of my vocation.

“Since that day in 1989, we’ve come a long way in how we respond to traumatic events and how we support people who are affected.

“We have accomplished giant steps in our understanding of traumatic stress at all levels.”

A PTSD survivor, Shane Smithers, said the new centre offered hope.

He believed that with intervention and better support after he attended the significant traumatic scene of a knife wounding in 2018, he may have avoided the worst of his PTSD.

Mr Smithers was one of the first officers on the scene to a domestic violence incident that led to the violent death of a young woman who had sustained multiple stab wounds. The patient was someone he knew, his daughter’s age.

“I was confronted with the scene of a horror movie. At one point she was in my arms as the doctors tried to re-start her heart,” he said.

Shane Smithers suffers from nightmares, after attending a traumatic scene six years ago.

After more than 12 hours from first responding, and then cleaning up blood from the scene, he said it felt like his own daughter had died, and he needed comprehensive support almost immediately.

“I kept pushing myself to work and feeling responsibility but the things that were creeping in were the flashbacks, the nightmares, being able to smell and taste the iron in the blood, waking up thinking I’m still there and having to dealing with incident again,” he said.

“It took me six weeks to see a doctor, and that was six years ago now.”

He still suffers from nightmares, loss of concentration, poor short-term memory and hypervigilance to the point of exhaustion. It’s affected his ability to communicate and has consequently impacted relationships and his ability to work.

“Now when I hear sirens, I get the biggest dump of adrenaline and suffer all the same physiological responses,” he said.

Mr Smithers believed the new centre offered hope to people like him looking to heal, by committing to research, and to use the findings to treat people, advocate and educate, and to influence support systems and policy.

At the centre, he participated in a recent clinical trial into a new treatment for PTSD and says after six weeks he noticed significant improvements, particularly with his concentration and ability to complete tasks. Results from this trial are yet to be published, but researchers say early findings are promising.

Mr Smithers hoped anyone directly or indirectly affected by the recent stabbing attack at Bondi Junction continue to be supported appropriately. He said the first few hours were critical, and the first two weeks were also a vital period for intervention.

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