• 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.



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.

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  • 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 to run dietary interventions in people with serious psychotic illnesses, such as schizophrenia. In 2017 we will develop a program investigating the possible role of food allergies and oversensitivity in the onset and progression of these disorders. Additionally, building on the cutting edge neuroscience (animal) research carried out by our colleagues at James Cook University in Queensland, we will conduct an intervention of the ketogenic diet for assessing potential benefits to psychotic symptoms.

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.  Anu Ruusunen will be conducting this program of research, beginning in 2017.

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  • Healthy Parents, Healthy Kids (HPHK) Study 2.0: Healthy eating from pregnancy to weaning, and beyond

The Healthy Parents, Healthy Kids (HPHK) Study 2.0: Healthy eating from pregnancy to weaning, and beyond will extend the Healthy Parents, Healthy Kids (HPHK) Study, targeting maternal diet for better gut health of mothers and infants, by following up the study participants up over the first 18 months of life.

The aims are to investigate the impact of a dietary educational intervention on the diets of the mothers, infants and the wider family, as well as related health outcomes. The aims are to: identify specific barriers and enablers of healthy eating behaviour adoption; identify a clear set of recommendations for future public health interventions based on the HPHK Study model; and to develop new customised interventions – online and coaching based – for better eating habits and lifestyle.

As further developments, the study will provide more information about eating habits during pregnancy and early life, not only in terms of quantity of data but also from qualitative perspective. The possible impact of certain types of food (i.e. processed Vs fresh food) on both physical and mental health will be explored in order to develop further novel research focused on quality, type and combinations of food, rather than quantity and calories. Sara Campolonghi will begin this study in 2017.

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  • SMILES Online

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 launch early in 2018, 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.

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