Healthy Parents, Healthy Kids study

We’re running an important study focused on diet and health for women and babies during pregnancy and beyond.

There’s still so much we don’t know about how diet might affect the health of pregnant women and their babies! We are running this study to test an educational dietary program delivered throughout the third trimester of pregnancy (starting from week 26), to see if it is helpful to women, and also to assess any effects the program might have on certain aspects of health in pregnant women and babies. The benefit of the study is that it could offer new insights into how diet might affect health. It may also help with making future recommendations about supporting mothers’ diets during pregnancy.

This study is no longer recruiting, but we should have results to share in the coming months!

Infant gut microbiota and child behavior

We are starting to hear more and more about how early life experiences can impact the gut microbiome – birth mode, breastfeeding, having pets and more. But what follow-on effects does the microbiome have on the developing brain and child behavior? At the Food & Mood Centre we are currently investigating this question in two separate studies, the Barwon Infant Study and the Baby Bioticsstudy, both in collaboration with Deakin University and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. These studies are no longer recruiting, but we should have results to share in the coming months!


Arguably the most exciting new field of medical research globally focuses on the role of our intestinal bacteria (known as the gut microbiota) in both physical and mental health and disease. Indeed, the human gut microbiota, and what is termed the ‘gut-brain axis’, are now increasingly regarded as potential critical drivers of mood and behaviour. Rapidly emerging research suggests that the gut, with its resident bacteria, is a key pathway by which environmental factors, such as poor diet, smoking, sedentary behaviour, sleep disturbances, and stress, influence mood and behaviour. However, a key issue in this emerging field is that most of the existing evidence is derived from animal studies and there is currently a significant lack of data from humans.

Our highly innovative MICRO-‘SCOPE (Microbiota-Colonoscopy) project is set in two General Surgery and Gastroenterology clinics in Geelong, Victoria, and comprises collaborations between Deakin University’s School of Medicine, University Hospital Geelong and the new Epworth Hospital Geelong. Data related to physical health, behaviour, and mental health will be collected from patients requiring a colonoscopy. Faecal samples will be collected one-week before colonoscopy, during the colonoscopy, and one-month post-colonoscopy, which will afford us the opportunity to describe associations between health, behaviours (diet in particular), mental health and microbiota composition and activity. This important project will be led by PhD candidate Amelia McGuinness, and will allow for the generation and testing of multiple hypotheses related to environmental exposures and health outcomes.

Human microbiota and health: a large epidemiological investigation in the Geelong Osteoporosis Study

The new technologies that have allowed us to catalog the microorganisms living in our bodies are now pointing to the profound influence of such organisms, and what is called ‘the gut-brain axis’, on our mental health. The new understandings in this field are giving rise to an entirely new way of thinking about health.  In particular, the new insights into the bidirectional relationships between our gut microbiota and the brain have pointed to the gut as a potentially critically important target for both the prevention and treatment of the mental illnesses that account for some of the leading causes of disease burden globally. However, to date most of the insights in this new field have come from animal studies and there is an urgent need for large-scale studies in humans. Also, the way in which microbiota interact with environmental and behavioural factors, such as poor diet, exercise and stress, to influence mental disorders such as depression is thus far unclear.

In this study, we are partnering with international leaders in the field of microbiota and gut-brain axis research to undertake a comprehensive examination of the possible role of the human gut microbiota in depression and other mental health problems. We are collecting many relevant data, including psychiatric and microbiota assessments, from an internationally unique cohort study of Australian adults participating in the Geelong Osteoporosis Study (GOS).

Given the massive global burden of illness attributable to depression and the lack of public health prevention strategies and new treatment options, the significance of this project, with its objective to improve our understanding of the mechanisms that may be central to the understanding of mental health, is clear. This project offers an extremely important opportunity to leverage on an existing large, representative cohort study of adults, with high quality data on psychiatric conditions, lifestyle behaviours, socioeconomic and other demographic factors, medical conditions, medications, and biomarkers in order to understand the complex interrelationships between the human gut microbiota and depression.

Our challenge is now to raise the necessary funding to afford the analysis of the microbiome and biomarker data arising from this important study.

Please click the link to donate

Dietary Fats, Intestinal Permeability and Metabolic Dysfunction

With the increasing incidence of obesity and metabolic diseases in recent times, diet has come under scrutiny, with a particular focus on fats. Investigations on dietary fats include the field of gut health. In particular, a condition known as intestinal permeability (IP) or ‘Leaky Gut’ has been shown to be associated with a high fat intake. This condition leads to the intrusion of harmful elements (including bacteria) from within the intestines into the bloodstream.  Consequently, the immune system is activated leading to several effects including inflammation, which is thought to lead to obesity, metabolic disease and depression. Some evidence indicates that different dietary fats, however, have differential effects within the body. Therefore, this study will investigate the effect of four different commonly used dietary fats and their effects on IP and metabolic disruptions in mice. Specifically, we will investigate diets high in olive oil vs ghee (butter) vs soybean oil vs coconut oil vs a control diet.

Also, cell cultures will be used to determine the direct effects of the different fats at high levels on human intestinal cells. This study will therefore help inform dietary recommendations as to which fats are healthy and which fats are harmful. John Melathethil is leading this study in collaboration with researchers at the Metabolic Research Unit at Deakin University.

Diet in psychotic disorders

While much of our work to date has focused on the ‘common mental disorders’ depression and anxiety, we are now intending to run dietary interventions in people with serious psychotic illnesses, such as schizophrenia. We are currently developing a program investigating the possible role of diet, food allergies and oversensitivity in the onset and progression of these disorders. In 2018-2019, Additionally, building on the cutting edge neuroscience (animal) research carried out by our colleagues at James Cook University in Queensland, we will conduct a pilot intervention study of the ketogenic diet (KD) for assessing feasibility and potential benefits to psychotic symptoms in psychotic inpatients.

Also, given the new research pointing to the gut microbiome as having an important role in affecting both psychiatric symptoms and behavior, we also want to assess whether targeting gut health is a helpful strategy for people with these serious conditions. We believe that this program will deliver valuable and important information on the potential effects of diet-related factors and interventions in psychotic disorders and we are seeking funding to support it.  Dr Anu Ruusunen is responsible for conducting this program of research.

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The My Food and Mood Project 

Building on the successful SMILES trial, we are currently developing an online dietary educational intervention, focussing on gut health that we will optimise and test for adult populations with low mood and depressive symptoms. We are also developing a Smartphone monitoring application to accompany the intervention which allows participants to observe patterns between their diet quality and mood.

The aims of this project are to develop, optimise and test the feasibility of the intervention resulting in an engaging platform that will enable participants to change their diet. We hope to then further test the relationship between diet and depression by using this platform in online trials looking at the intervention effects on diet and depressive symptoms and mood.

We believe this kind of intervention has the potential to reach many people who would otherwise not seek treatment or may not have access to the services they need. Based on the results we achieved with our SMILES study, we believe it could also have a real effect on their depressive symptoms.

The online intervention and smartphone application optimisation trial will be recruiting soon, led by PhD Candidate Claire Young. Further financial support will ensure this intervention is leading edge and potentially support its rollout to the wider community.

Now Recruiting for Participants – Click here to participate

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The Moo’D Study

We now know that good nutrition is important for mental as well as physical health. However, there are still unanswered questions about what particular foods within our diet might influence mental health. Dairy products, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, are a major component of the Australian diet. There are a range of dairy products available on the market (low-fat, full-fat, and A1-protein free) however it is unclear how these products might influence our mental wellbeing. Casein is the predominant protein found in milk products, with A1 and A2 beta-casein two of the more common types. To date, research has told us that these milk proteins differ in their structure and produce two different metabolic end products upon digestion. A by-product from the digestion of certain milk proteins are believed to influence our health, and in particular our gut health. But, we also believe that there may be more to this story.

For this reason, we are interested in comparing the possible effects of A2 milk and conventional milk products (containing both the A1 and A2 protein) on psychological distress in women. We are also interested in comparing the possible differences between these two dairy products on gut symptoms, the gut microbiota, cognition, body composition, sleep patterns, quality of life and a range of other health parameters. To do this, we will run a 16-week double-blind, randomised controlled at University Hospital Geelong known as The Moo’D Study. Eligible women with low mood will be randomised to receive either the A2 or the conventional dairy products. Participants will be provided with dairy products for the duration of the trial and complete a range of assessments in clinic and at home throughout the 16-week study. Recruitment for this trial is expected to commence mid-2018 and will be led by PhD Candidates Meghan Hockey and Hajara Aslam with Catherine Helson as Trial Co-Ordinator.

Now Recruiting for Participants – Click here for more information

Food Choices: Perceptions and Experiences of Australian Fathers

The family context is pivotal in shaping children’s food/eating preferences and habits. Fathers can play a unique role in orienting food choices in the family. Previous literature has established the importance of paternal diet, feeding practices and modelling in influencing children’s eating behaviour, however an understanding of what shapes fathers’ food choices and their contribution to the family food context is currently lacking.

The present PhD project aims to explore Australian fathers’ perceptions and experiences about their food choices and the relationship between food and health, using qualitative methods (in-depth interviews and focus groups). Participants are individuals playing a fathering role in their children’s life, aged 1 to 12, living in Melbourne Inner Suburbs and Geelong Region.

This study will provide an in-depth insight into fathers’ lay theories of food, eating and health, their personal food choices, perceived enablers and barriers to healthy eating, and fathers’ role in the family food context. This evidence may inform policies and interventions for healthy eating addressing families, parents and children. Sara Campolonghi is the student investigator for this study.

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Longitudinal determinants of muscle mass

Skeletal muscle accounts for a large part of our body composition and plays many vital roles in the body’s homeostasis, movement and general function. Age-associated decreases in muscle mass, strength, and quality is a progressive condition called sarcopenia, which can lead to significant decline in quality of life due to frailty and associated disabilities. In addition to its supportive and movement-based role, skeletal muscle is also the tissue responsible for the majority of glucose metabolism in the body. Therefore, muscle wastage also has implications for chronic metabolic conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

The current study aims to identify the multitude of factors, including lifestyle and medical factors, that may predict muscle mass over time, drawing on data from the large Geelong Osteoporosis Study (GOS). This is an ongoing cohort study which collects clinical and lifestyle data from participants on a regular basis. Originally recruiting female participants in 1993, the GOS now has a wealth of data for both men and women spanning 25 years. Potential factors to be assessed include but are not limited to hormone therapy, vitamin D status, nutrition, mental health, microbiome profile and alcohol consumption. This longitudinal study will be led by PhD student Jessica Davis, who hopes the results will help to identify targets for interventions and treatments that contribute to improving quality of life in an aging population.

The Healthy Brain Project – Microbiome Arm

There remains no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and it is increasingly understood that effective interventions must be preventative, and be commenced well before symptoms begin. The gut microbiome has been shown to be different in people with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (compared to healthy control groups). It’s still not clear whether this is a cause or consequence of the disease, however animal studies are showing us that there can be strong gut to brain effects on learning, mood, brain structure and brain function.

So in a large sample of healthy middle-aged adults, we aim to identify which genetic, health, behavioural and microbial factors are relevant to the risk of having early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease. In particular, this project asks “how does the gut microbiome relate to Alzheimer’s disease pathophysiology”?

This is a collaboration with the Healthy Brain Project at the Florey Institute, lead by Dr Rachel Buckley and Dr Yen Ying Lim.  The Healthy Brain Project is recruiting now. Click here to learn more and to see if you are eligible.

Gut Feelings study

The term ‘psychobiotics’ has recently been coined to refer to treatments for mental and neurological conditions that act via the gut microbiome. We are collaborating with colleagues at the University of Melbourne and The Melbourne Clinic on the Gut Feelings Study (link), a randomized controlled trial of three different psychobiotics: probiotic supplements, prebiotic foods and a combination of the two (synbiotics).

The study will evaluate the efficacy of these treatments for improving low mood, and we will be taking a close look at the gut microbiome. Does the gut microbiome at baseline predict type or severity of low mood? In what ways do the treatments affect the gut microbiome? And could we ultimately be able to predict treatment response from baseline gut microbiome properties?

Gut Feelings is recruiting now in Melbourne. Click here to learn more and see if you are eligible.

The role of gut microbiome in anorexia nervosa and atypical anorexia

Anorexia nervosa (AN) has the highest mortality rates of all psychiatric conditions and treatment outcomes are still poor. Rapidly accumulating evidence supports the important role of gut microbiome in regulating behaviour, depression and anxiety, appetite and metabolism. Interestingly, these are all core features frequently altered in individuals with AN. However, it is only in the last few years that the hypothesis that gut microbiota hasa role in the pathophysiology of AN has begun to been studied. Nevertheless, there are no previous studies on gut microbiome in atypical anorexia (AtAN).

The aim of this project is to investigate to what extent the intestinal microbiota is perturbed in individuals with AN or AtAN in comparison to healthy controls. In addition, we aim to characterize the changes in microbial composition during the nutritional rehabilitation and weight recovery.

In the future, we are also interested to investigate if modulating the gut microbiota could support other treatments by improving gut health, reducing inflammation, potentially decreasing anxiety and depression in AN.

This Food & Mood Centre’s project is led by Dr Anu Ruusunen who has previously worked as a clinical dietitian with individuals with eating disorders.