Stream Description

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One in every two people will develop a mental health or substance use disorder during their lifetime. Our treatment research aims to develop and evaluate the efficacy of novel interventions to treat these disorders as well as their combination. Our research thus far has focused on the testing of psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies for individuals who have both a substance use disorder and the most common mental disorders including anxiety, depressive and psychotic disorders.



Ongoing Projects

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Social well-being and engaged living (SWEL) intervention for Australian youth at risk of mental health and other adverse outcomes

Dr Helen Stain, Dr Christopher Jackson, Professor Rhoshel Lenroot, Dr Georgie Paulik, Dr Patrick McElduff, Dr Luke Wolfenden
Funding Body: National Health and Medical Research Council

Adolescence is a period of rapid physical, emotional and social growth. Young people are faced with significant developmental challenges including the establishment of a stable identity, mastery of personal relationships and the achievement of major educational and vocational goals. Many young people lack the socio-emotional skills necessary to successfully negotiate the transition through adolescence, and are at increased risk of disengaging from education, family and community. Once disengaged, youth are at risk of a range of adverse outcomes such as reduced social and community participation in young adulthood and beyond. Much of this social disadvantage could be avoided if disengaged youth had access to effective prevention and early intervention programs.

This is the first clinical trial to investigate the efficacy of a telephone delivered intervention for improving the social engagement and emotional well-being of disengaged rural and urban youth. There will be 294 youth aged 12-25 years randomised to receive either (i) 8 sessions of Social Well-being and Engaged Living intervention (SWEL), (ii) 8 sessions of Befriending, or (iii) Single Session Psycho-Education. We will engage with the Aboriginal communities in our catchment regions through consultation and collaboration; employment and training of Aboriginal youth liaison officers; consultation, liaison and education with Aboriginal key workers in the community for referral of disengaged youth. Our unique intervention aims to foster positive social and emotional skills in adolescents, to decrease the risk of adverse outcomes and promote health enhancing lifestyles. It will facilitate the resumption of education, training or employment and enhance the social inclusion of disengaged youth. Our clinical trial will increase access to effective early intervention for disengaged urban and rural youth to improve the mental health and well-being of all young Australians.

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The impact of real-time fMRI feedback on response to nicotine cues

Project Members: Prof Kathleen Brady
Mark George
Funding Body: NIH/NIDA

Nicotine dependence is the leading preventable cause of mortality in the world today. Cue-induced craving is likely to play an important role in relapse. The neural correlates of smoking cue-induced craving and extinction have been elucidated using fMRI. Recent advances make it possible to utilize real-time fMRI (rtfMRI) feedback to modify behavior, cognitions and regional brain activity. The purpose of this study is to develop the imaging parameters, brain-computer interface and standardized procedures for using rtfMRI with visual feedback to help nicotine-dependent individuals decrease craving when presented with smoking cues. The exploratory nature of this study requires a phased approach. Phase 1 will focus on the development of the technology and study paradigm. In order to proceed to Phase 2, there must be convincing evidence that a substantial proportion of nicotine-dependent individuals can manipulate brain activity in critical brain regions associated with smoking cue-induced craving based on rtfMRI visual feedback. If this is established, a controlled comparison and duration of effect will be explored in Phase 2. This project will set the stage for clinical trials investigating a very innovative approach to the treatment of nicotine dependence and other substance use disorders. The study will provide critical information about optimal techniques, durability and "transferability" of the effects to situations outside of the scanner. The findings of this study can be used to inform the design of a clinical trial to investigate the use of rtfMRI neuromodulation training in smoking cessation.

Project Contacts: Prof Kathleen Brady

Completed Projects

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A brief intervention for traumatised clients of alcohol and other drug treatment services

Dr Claudia Sannibale
Funding Body: NSW Health Drug and Alcohol Research Grants Program

Trauma exposure and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are highly prevalent among clients of alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment services. There is expert agreement that to improve the outcomes of individuals with substance use disorders (SUD) who have experienced trauma, AOD treatment services need to incorporate trauma-specific interventions. There are however, very few evidence-based treatment options for AOD clients who have experienced trauma and/or have PTSD. Those that do exist possess a number of characteristics that inhibit their ability to be implemented in AOD services; they tend to be lengthy, treatment retention is relatively poor, and they require extensive training and clinical supervision. For these reasons, many AOD clinicians are not able, or willing, to implement these interventions in clinical practice. A brief intervention (BI) for trauma-related symptoms may be more attractive, feasible and sustainable to both clients and AOD workers. BI’s are less time and resource intensive, and they may be applied across a variety of settings, by a range of clinicians, with minimal training. The present study sought to pilot test, in an uncontrolled trial, the feasibility of a brief intervention for traumatised clients of AOD treatment services. The study findings provide preliminary evidence that brief psychoeducation for traumatised clients of AOD services is safe and appears to have some benefit in relation to PTSD symptoms. Severity of PTSD symptoms significantly decreased from baseline to 1-week follow up and these reductions were retained through to the 3 month follow up. However, while PTSD symptoms decreased, patients were still experiencing symptoms at severe levels.  There was also no change in relation to post traumatic cognitions, and initial improvements in substance use were not maintained. Thus, the brief intervention may best be conceptualised as a “stepping stone” to further trauma treatment. Further research examining the brief intervention in the context of stepped-care approaches to treatment may be beneficial.

Project Contacts: Ms Philippa Ewer
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Australian Treatment Outcome Study

Prof Shane Darke, Prof Michael Lynskey, Ms Joanne White
Funding Body: National Health and Medical Research Council

Heroin dependence is remarkably persistent, and in many cases it is a lifelong condition with a high mortality rate. Yet, the natural history of heroin dependence has rarely been studied. The Australian Treatment Outcome Study (ATOS) is a landmark Australian cohort study examining outcomes from heroin dependence. 615 participants were recruited to the study in 2001-2002 and followed up over three years. The 11-year follow-up commenced in 2012, making it one of the longest and most comprehensive prospective follow-up of Australian heroin users. An 11-year follow-up presents the unique opportunity to examine: Mortality rates, remission rates, criminal histories and levels of psychopathology; predictive factors of long term remission, mortality, criminality; and the health service utilisation associated with heroin use careers.

Seventy percent (n=431) of the original 615 participants completed the 11-year follow-up; a further 10% (n=63%) of participants were deceased. The proportion of participants who reported using heroin in the preceding month decreased significantly from baseline (98.7%) to 36-month follow-up (34.0%; odds ratio=0.01; 95% confidence interval=0.00, 0.01) with further reductions evident between 36 months and 11 years (24.8%). However, one in four continued to use heroin at 11 years, and close to one-half (46.6%) were in current treatment. The reduction in current heroin use was accompanied by reductions in risk taking, crime and injection-related health problems, and improvements in general physical and mental health. The relationship with treatment exposure was varied. Major depression was associated consistently with poorer outcome.

Project Contacts: Dr Christina Marel
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Buspirone treatment for marijuana dependence

Project Members: Prof Kathleen Brady
Aimee McRae-Clark
Funding Body: NIH/NIDA

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug, yet few clinical trials have evaluated pharmacotherapy treatments for marijuana dependence. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the efficacy of buspirone, a partial 5-HT1A agonist, for treatment of cannabis dependence. 175 cannabis-dependent adults were randomised to receive either up to 60 mg/day of buspirone (n = 88) or placebo (n = 87) for 12 weeks combined with a brief motivational enhancement therapy intervention and contingency management to encourage study retention. Cannabis use outcomes were assessed via weekly urine cannabinoid tests.

Participants in both groups reported reduced cannabis craving over the course of the study; however, buspirone provided no advantage over placebo in reducing cannabis use. Significant gender by treatment interactions were observed, with women randomised to buspirone having fewer negative urine cannabinoid tests than women randomised to placebo (p = 0.007), and men randomised to buspirone having significantly lower creatinine adjusted cannabinoid levels as compared to those randomised to placebo (p = 0.023). An evaluation of serotonin allelic variations did not find an association with buspirone treatment response.

Project Contacts: Prof Kathleen Brady
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D-Cycloserine facilitation of cocaine-cue extinction

Project Members: Prof Kathleen Brady
Funding Body: NIH/NIDA

Cocaine dependence remains a serious problem in the United States today and in spite of two decades of intense research, efficacious pharmacotherapeutic treatments have not been identified. Cocaine-associated environmental cues can elicit drug craving and exposure to cocaine-related cues is likely to be involved in relapse. Emerging data supports the role of glutamate in extinction learning. D-cycloserine (DCS), a partial glutamate agonist, facilitates extinction of associative learning in animal models of fear-conditioning and clinical studies of exposure treatment for anxiety disorders. A recent study demonstrated DCS acceleration of extinction of cocaine-induced conditioned place preference in rats (Botreau et al., 2006). Exploration of DCS in facilitating extinction of response to drug-related cues in humans is needed. This study extended these innovative and promising findings from the basic science arena and anxiety disorders field in a proof of concept investigation of DCS facilitation of extinction of response to cocaine-related cues in a human laboratory paradigm. In addition, to examine the neural substrates of extinction learning, a sub-set of individuals that were willing and eligible underwent fMRI scanning procedures before and after the extinction protocol.

Project Contacts: Prof Kathleen Brady
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Group schema therapy for the treatment of co-occurring depression and opioid dependence.

Funding Body: NSW Ministry of Health - Drug and Alcohol Research Grants Program

Heroin dependence is a chronic relapsing condition, associated with high levels of psychopathology. On entry to treatment approximately one quarter of heroin users meet criteria for Major Depression (MD). While cognitive behavioural therapy has the greatest evidence base for the treatment of MD, it makes several assumptions that don’t hold true for clients with chronic problems, such as long term drug dependence, and chronic depression. Schema therapy (ST) significantly expands on traditional cognitive behavioural treatments, and appears well suited to clients with chronic psychological disorders who have been difficult to treat. It places greater emphasis on exploring the childhood and adolescent origins of psychological problems, and on maladaptive coping styles. This study aims to pilot test, in a small randomised controlled trial, the feasibility of a group intervention for chronically depressed, opioid dependent clients of alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment services.

Project Contacts: Dr Joanne Ross
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Healthy lifestyle intervention for cardiovascular disease risk reduction among people with psychotic disorders

Prof Jayashri Kulkarni, A/Prof Jill Williams
Funding Body: National Health and Medical Research Council

People with severe mental disorders typically experience a range of health problems; consequently, interventions addressing multiple health behaviors may provide an efficient way to tackle this major public health issue. This two-arm randomised controlled trial among people with psychotic disorders examined the efficacy of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) plus either a face-to-face or predominantly telephone delivered intervention for smoking cessation and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk reduction.

Following baseline assessment and completion of a common, individually delivered 90-minute face-to-face intervention, participants (n = 235) were randomised to receive NRT plus: (1) a "Healthy Lifestyles" intervention for smoking cessation and CVD risk behaviors or (2) a predominantly telephone-based intervention (designed to control for NRT provision, session frequency, and other monitoring activities). Research assistants blind to treatment allocation performed assessments at 15 weeks (mid-intervention) and 12 months after baseline.

There were no significant differences between intervention conditions in CVD risk or smoking outcomes at 15 weeks or 12 months, with improvements in both conditions (eg, 12 months: 6.4% confirmed point prevalence abstinence rate; 17% experiencing a 50% or greater smoking reduction; mean reduction of 8.6 cigarettes per day; mean improvement in functioning of 9.8 points).

The health disparity experienced by people with psychotic disorders is high. Face-to-face Healthy Lifestyle interventions appear to be feasible and somewhat effective. However, given the accessibility of telephone delivered interventions, potentially combined with lower cost, further studies are needed to evaluate telephone delivered smoking cessation and lifestyle interventions for people with psychotic disorders.

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Integrated exposure based therapy for co-occurring post traumatic stress disorder and substance dependence: A randomized controlled trial

Dr Claudia Sannibale, Ms Sally Hopwood
Funding Body: National Health and Medical Research Council

There has long been concern that exposure therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be inappropriate for patients with co-occurring substance dependence (SD). This study was the first randomised controlled trial to examine the efficacy of an integrated exposure-based therapy for PTSD and SD called Concurrent Treatment of PTSD and Substance Use Disorders Using Prolonged Exposure (COPE). Contrary to popular belief, participants randomised to receive the exposure based intervention did not demonstrate poorer substance use outcomes relative to the TAU control group. On the contrary, compared to individuals randomised to receive usual treatment for SD alone, individuals randomised to receive COPE in addition to usual treatment for SD demonstrated significantly greater reductions in PTSD symptom severity without exacerbating substance use. The complex trauma, substance use and psychiatric presentations commonly found among individuals with PTSD and SD should not be a deterrent to providing trauma-focused treatment.

Project Contacts: A/Prof Katherine Mills
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Randomised controlled trial of treatment for alcohol use problems and social phobia

Dr Claudia Sannibale, Prof Ronald Rapee, Mirjana Subotic
Funding Body: National Health and Medical Research Council

Alcohol use problems and social anxiety are common and disabling conditions that frequently co-occur.  Although there are efficacious treatments for each disorder, little is known about the best way to treat these problems when they co-exist.  Our team has developed an integrated treatment combining CBT and motivational interviewing to simultaneously address social anxiety and alcohol use disorders, and the interconnections between these problems. A randomised controlled trial of this treatment was conducted with individuals with both social anxiety and alcohol use disorder. The aim was to determine whether combined treatment would result in greater improvement in symptoms of social anxiety, alcohol use disorder or quality of life compared to CBT for alcohol alone.


Stapinski, L. et al (2015) The Clinical and Theoretical Basis for Integrated Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Comorbid Social Anxiety and Alcohol Use Disorders, Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2014.05.004

Baillie, A. et al (2013) An investigator-blinded, randomized study to compare the efficacy of combined CBT for alcohol use disorders and social anxiety disorder versus CBT focused on alcohol alone in adults with comorbid disorders: the Combined Alcohol Social Phobia (CASP) trial protocol, BMC Psychiatry, doi:10.1186/1471-244X-13-199

Project Contacts: A/Prof Andrew Baillie


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