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Facing up to mental illness – volunteers needed

Comedian Bill Cosby has a role to play in work towards developing a diagnostic test for depression at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research.

QIMR researchers are analysing people’s facial expressions and eye movements during emotive film clips and comparing depressed patients’ reactions to those of healthy members of the community.

Professor Michael Breakspear, head of QIMR’s Mental Health and Complex Disorders Program, said his team was using cutting-edge brain imaging and computer modelling techniques.

“We have found that people suffering with depression tend to show fewer facial expressions during funny and sad film clips,” Professor Breakspear said.

“We believe this technique may help better diagnose mental illness.

“Psychiatry remains the only discipline of modern clinical practise where diagnosis relies solely on the opinion of clinicians. Although there are laboratory tests to rule out medical causes of behavioural disturbances, such as infections or tumours, there are no diagnostic tests that actually confirm or even assist in the diagnosis of a major mental illness.

“We believe that modern imaging and information technology can address this problem, complimenting clinical opinion, and also help patients monitor the progress of their own illness and their response to treatment.”

QIMR is seeking healthy volunteers to watch a short series of video clips, including Bill Cosby comedy sketches, a harrowing depiction of the African civil war, and scenes from the 1979 movie “The Champ”, known as “the saddest movie in the world”.

The research team will compare facial expressions, speech, physiological responses and brain activity among study participants.

“It’s a safe and non-invasive process. By addressing the largest burden of societal illness – mental illness – research in this field has enormous potential financial and personal benefit,” Professor Breakspear said.

“Depression is one of the most common of all mental health problems. At least one in five Australians will experience major depression sometime in our lifetimes, and about half of people with depression also suffer from anxiety disorders,” Professor Breakspear said.

“Mental illness can impact every facet of your life and your family’s life, yet still so many mental illnesses are misunderstood.

“Ideally, through improvements in diagnosis and management, our research aims to improve the quality of life for those with a mental illness.”

Professor Breakspear is looking for healthy volunteers to participate in his research. If you’re over 40 and interested in helping, please email

If you’re suffering with depression and need support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

More information about depression can be found at the Black Dog Institute, Beyond Blue or SANE Australia