Scientific work at the University of Newcastle is expanding knowledge of the brain to help develop treatments of the future for mental health conditions.
Professor Chris Dayas is researching pathways in the brain that link stress to mood disorders, with a $770,000 grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council.
"We're trying to understand how the brain responds to different types of stress," said Professor Dayas, a neuroscientist in the School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy.
"If it is chronic and prolonged, stress can increase the risk or worsen psychiatric conditions."
In the short-term, stress can be good. It helps people complete tasks and meet challenges.
Stress is also a warning system that aids survival. It triggers the so-called fight or flight response. But if the stress becomes chronic, it can be detrimental.
"In humans, this can lead to stress-related depression and anxiety and impede recovery from infection."
The increasing stresses of modern life are leading to a rise in awareness of mental health conditions and the need to properly treat them.
But better treatments for mood disorders will require a "better understanding of the basic wiring of the brain".
To explain this simply, Professor Dayas uses the Pasha storm and the blackouts it caused as an example.
"To fix that system, the electricity companies all have a pretty good understanding of the grid and how to fix the poles and wires.
"Unfortunately, we still have a pretty rudimentary understanding of the basic wiring of the brain."
Nevertheless, a clearer understanding looks set to emerge in the next five to 10 years, opening the door to more advanced treatments for mental health disorders.
New advances are needed partly because antidepressants and other forms of psychological treatment don't work for some people and don't necessarily prevent relapse.
GPs often prescribe antidepressants for depression and anxiety and other related mental health conditions.
These drugs are thought to work by increasing serotonin in the brain. But they can have side effects like headache, nausea, sleeplessness, drowsiness, agitation and decreased sexual desire.
Professor Dayas said it was still not known precisely how these drugs work.
"If we have more information on how they actually work, we should be able to make those drugs more efficient," he said.
His team is working in the field of precision medicine, which seeks to tailor the best treatment to individuals.
This involves having a good understanding of genetic factors, while accounting for environmental influences such as a person's lifestyle and living conditions.
The research also involves determining the best periods of time to use drug treatment and/or behaviour therapy [such as cognitive behavioural therapy].
Professor Dayas is particularly interested in parts of the brain called the amygdala and hypothalamus.
He and his team are examining the medial amygdala and connections between the stress and olfactory systems.
"We are starting to understand that humans use their olfactory system [used for smelling] in a lot more complicated ways than most people think."
As well as smelling things like food as good or bad, the system is also important in human behaviour. That is, how signals from the nose drive specific behaviour like responses to stress.