Professor Greg Murray, APS Fellow, Wins Wellcome UK Grant

Australian Psychological Society

We’re excited to share news that APS Fellow Professor Greg Murray has won the prestigious international Wellcome UK grant for his research on bipolar disorder.

Following years of dedication researching mood disorders and circadian rhythms, Greg’s achievement brings cutting-edge Australian psychological research to the world stage.

Led by Swinburne University in Melbourne, Greg and his international team of researchers in Germany, UK, India and New Zealand have been awarded $4.1 million dollars to investigate circadian signals in bipolar disorder.

This project will test the prediction that machine learning approaches can identify hidden signals in actigraphy data to generate red flags of increased risk of relapse into mania or depression.

Results of this project could be a game-changer for people with bipolar disorder, providing an additional early warning tool, potentially avoiding disruptive and expensive inpatient stays.

Greg’s group and others have generated preliminary evidence that actigraphically-measured circadian and sleep function may provide early warning of deteriorating mental health status in people with relapsing mood disorders.

There is burgeoning research interest in circadian pathways in mental health. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2022) now recognises sleep/circadian disturbance as a core vulnerability to bipolar disorder. In 2022, the UK’s Wellcome Trust created a £50 million research scheme to systematically investigate circadian pathways to mental ill health.

The APS commends Greg on his dedication and wishes him every success with the project.

Further background on Greg’s ground-breaking research project

The earth’s environment is profoundly rhythmic: Evolution has adapted all species – including humans – to optimise behaviour in the context of the daily cycle from dark to light. The biological heart of this adaptation is called the circadian system, which functions as an endogenous clock to optimally time our engagement with the environment. In a sense, all biology is circadian biology, and there is ample evidence that circadian disturbances are causally involved in a range of physical and mental health disorders.

What has this biological system got to do with psychological work? First, the circadian system is a primary driver of the sleep/wake cycle, and management of most sleep problems (including insomnia) requires the psychologist consider their client’s circadian function. Second, the circadian system is adapted to be open to the environment, so deliberate human behaviour affects system function. For example, adolescents struggling with waking for school benefit from increased exposure to bright light in the morning and decreased exposure to light in the evening (phase advancing their circadian system).

Finally, one very visible manifestation of circadian function is the daily rhythm in activity. When our clients measure their activity with a Fitbit or Apple Watch they are collecting circadian information, and their lifestyle patterns (e.g., instability in daily routines) might reflect, or indeed cause circadian disturbances. In sleep and circadian science, we’ve been using scientific versions of the Fitbit for decades (we call them ‘actigraphs’) to measure sleep onset and offset, and 24-hour patterns of activity that reflect circadian function.

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