Forrest Scholars making difference

The Forrest Research Foundation was established in 2014 to create a world-leading collaborative centre of research and scholarship. The foundation was made possible through one of the largest-ever philanthropic donations in Australian history, by Andrew and Nicola Forrest through the Minderoo Foundation. It aims to attract outstanding doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows to Western Australia and develop their potential to address the world’s most pressing challenges through research at one of Western Australia’s five universities. Forrest Scholars aim to make a difference to people’s lives by eradicating hunger, conquering disease, protecting the planet, developing new technologies and extending the boundaries of human knowledge. Here we profile some of these trailblazers.

Seeking a better treatment for depression

Forrest Research Foundation Scholarship holder Bhedita Seewoo may have only just submitted her PhD thesis, but she’s already started on her next project.

She came to UWA via school in Mauritius and Western Australia’s Murdoch University, where she was awarded the University Medal for a Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Science and upper-first class honours for a study looking at brain activation in rats.

Studies on rats tend not to offend people in the same way that studies on cats, for instance, would have cat-lovers up in arms. And, as disturbing as it may be to learn, rats’ brains do have important similarities with our own.

Ms Seewoo’s doctoral research explored the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to examine the effects of low-intensity repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) on brain activity, chemistry and structure in rats; with a view to the possibility of assisting those humans suffering from that scourge of our age, depression.

MRI scans of the brains of people suffering from depression show a different pattern of activity in certain areas of the brain.

Ms Seewoo is also working on imaging data provided by the legendary Mayo Clinic, an American not-for-profit health system with outstanding technology. She supplies the analysis of the structural imaging they have done on the brains of adolescents experiencing depression.

Bhedita Sweewoo

Medical treatments of a pharmaceutical nature can have unpleasant and in some instances, dangerous side effects. Low-intensity rTMS would involve the placing of a coil on a human head, which would allow a magnetic field to enter the brain and create an electric field that would stimulate specific brain parts.

High-intensity rTMS causes neurons to fire in a way that can result in visible movement; and when applied for the treatment of depression, it can result in the stimulation of facial muscles. It is hoped that there will be good results from a milder experience.

The high-intensity rTMS has had a fairly good record of helping the depressed, particularly the one in three who are resistant to anti-depressant medications. The validity of the responses is checked by the provision of fake stimulation as a form of placebo comparison.

Low-intensity rTMS has not yet been approved for treating depression, with testing confined to rats and mice. Ms Seewoo believes that we may be 15 to 20 years away from its approval as a stand-alone treatment for human use.

She is driven by intense intellectual curiosity and the determination to make a difference in people’s lives. Scholarships have made an enormous difference in hers: the difference between doing doctoral research and collaborating with the Mayo Clinic which has the potential to help vast numbers of people, or working as a school teacher back home in Mauritius.

Because making a difference is of paramount importance to her, she is working with the team of Emerita Professor Sarah Dunlop, Minderoo Foundation’s Director of Health and Medical Research, Plastics and Human Health. In this work, the effects of plastics on human brains are her concern.

There are discoveries to be made there, too.

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