The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s (RMH) Neuropsychiatry team has been awarded $750,000 by the The Ramsay Hospital Research Foundation (RHRF).

Glasses resting on an open book
Glasses resting on an open book

The project led by RMH clinical director of Neuropsychiatry Professor Dennis Velakoulis, is aimed at developing a blood test to help distinguish neurological and neurodegenerative illnesses from psychiatric illnesses.

This novel work will be in collaboration with Ramsay Health psychiatrists Professor Malcolm Hopwood (Albert Road Clinic Melbourne) and Professor Philip Mitchell (Northside Clinic Sydney).

The MiND program of research (The Markers in Neuropsychiatric Disorders, NHMRC 2020-2024) aims to identify whether a blood marker called neurofilament light (NfL) can help address this important question.

Professor Velakoulis explains that neurofilament light is a brain cell protein which maintains the structure of brain cells. Neurofilament light is released into the cerebrospinal fluid and blood when a brain cell is damaged.

"When we see it elevated in the spinal fluid or blood, it indicates that there's been some brain injury and the brain cells have died,” Prof Velakoulis said.

Crucially, the levels of neurofilament light is not elevated in patients with mental illness, meaning this test could differentiate between those people with mental health disorders and those with neurological disorders such as dementia.

“The main aim of this work is to reduce the time taken to diagnosis dementia. People who have dementia in middle age will often have seen their doctors with depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders years before the diagnosis of dementia is made. A test such neurofilament light may help in the earlier detection of dementia, could reduce the need for unnecessary expensive and time-consuming investigations, and improve outcomes for patients and their families,” Prof Velakoulis said.

Chief Investigator, Research Fellow and Neuropsychiatrist at the RMH, Dr Dhamidhu Eratne, says having a test so widely available to general practitioners and specialists will dramatically alter clinical care.

“In the same way a General Practitioner performs simple blood tests such as thyroid function tests to exclude thyroid problems as a cause for depression or cognitive symptoms, a blood NfL test could alert the GP to a neurological or neurodegenerative cause, rather than a primary psychiatric illness,” Dr Eratne said.

The Ramsay Health Research Foundation grant will allow the Neuropsychiatry team’s work to extend the mood and anxiety disorders programs at Albert Road Clinic and Northside Clinic.

Visit the MiND study website for more information.

Mobile Stroke Unit with Ambulance Victoria paramedic and the RMH Stroke team
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