Epidemiology Research Program

John McGrath photo colour 2011

John received his medical degree from the University of Queensland. After working as a community-based psychiatrist, he moved into full-time research, becoming the Director of the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research in 1990. He holds appointments at the University of Queensland Department of Psychiatry, the Queensland Brain Institute and Griffith University.
His research aims to generate and evaluate nongenetic risk factors for schizophrenia. He has forged productive cross-disciplinary collaborations linking risk factor epidemiology with developmental neurobiology (e.g. using animal models to explore candidate exposures). In addition, he has supervised major systematic reviews of the incidence, prevalence and mortality of schizophrenia.
He has won several national and international awards including the Premier’s Award for Medical Research, a Queensland-Smithsonian Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency, and the Organon Senior Research Award. The Australian government awarded John a Centenary Medal in 2003 and in 2007 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM). He is on the editorial boards of several international journals, and has published over 200 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters.

RESEARCH DIRECTIONS

We are interested in the frequency measures related to serious mental disorders (e.g. incidence, prevalence, mortality, recovery/remission). We are also interested in the clinical and demographic correlates of adverse mental health outcomes. Some of these may be modifiable risk factors and thus important from a public health perspective. We use large, community-based surveys, and birth cohorts. Our focus has been on psychotic disorders and psychotic-like experiences in the general population. In addition, we are examining the links between early life vitamin D status and risk of later mental illness, by directly measuring vitamin D (in collaboration with Darryl Eyles and many international collaborators).

Schizophrenia is a poorly understood group of brain disorders that affect about one in a hundred Australians. The aim of the McGrath group is to explore risk factors that are linked to schizophrenia. In particular they focus on nongenetic factors that are potentially modifiable. In recent years the team has been examining the impact of low vitamin D (the sunshine hormone) during early brain development. In collaboration with Dr Darryl Eyles and Dr Tom Burne, they have developed animal models that examine the impact of low vitamin D during gestation on brain development. Recently the group and their Danish collaborators have found that low vitamin D levels at birth double the risk of later developing schizophrenia.

The group has also found that the offspring of older fathers have an increased of schizophrenia. In 2011 they published findings of a mouse model of advanced paternal age. In collaboration with Professor Emma Whitelaw at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Dr Trudi Flatscher-Bader from the McGrath team reported that the offspring of older males have a significantly increased risk of a type of genetic mutations (copy number variants). This study also found that paternal age was associated with mutations in genes linked to autism and schizophrenia. Age of parenthood is increasing in many societies and it is feasible that paternal-age related genetic mutations with increase in the years ahead.

This research raises the tantalizing prospect of the primary prevention of schizophrenia. It is feasible that the use of vitamin D supplementation in at-risk groups could reduce the incidence of schizophrenia, in a manner comparable to folate supplementation and the prevention of spina bifida.

RESEARCH PROJECTS

Epidemiology (click to access)

PUBLICATIONS (click to access)