Our People
Associate Professor
James Roberts

What does the Brain Modelling Group do?

We use physics and maths to try to understand the brain. We’re interested in how brains are wired up, how brain cells talk to each other, how things change across the lifespan, and what mechanisms might explain what’s gone wrong in neurological and psychiatric disorders. We have a particular interest in baby brains – birth is a precarious time that coincides with really fast brain development, and problems early on can have lifelong consequences. And, for something completely different, since late 2020 we now also model how COVID-19 spreads through the population, focusing on the best ways to mitigate potential outbreaks in Queensland.

What is one of the most exciting projects you are working on right now?

We’re developing the first model for how sleep patterns develop from birth through early childhood. It looks like we can explain the mechanisms behind why children nap less often as they grow older. If all goes to plan we might be able to find answers for why some kids sleep like clockwork, while other kids apparently have other ideas.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the nature of your work?

The biggest change is making a leap into infectious diseases modelling! A lot of modelling skills are transferrable, but there’s a heap of domain-specific knowledge to learn. And wow, the pandemic moves fast – work can become obsolete in a matter of months or even weeks.

What is one of your ‘big predictions’ for your field in the next 10 years?

In our work on finding new diagnostics for babies born preterm or with complications at birth, the machine learning algorithms are now at the point of “human equivalency”. So we can do about as well as human experts interpreting the brain signals typically recorded in neonatal intensive care units. Within the next 10 years it should be possible to embed these algorithms into a new model of care, no longer reliant on on-call specialist interpretation, which isn’t available 24/7 and especially not in regional hospitals. We’ve been fortunate to receive a generous donation toward helping us reach this goal, enabling us to translate many years of research into a real-world clinical tool.

Name two people, living or dead, you’d want to sit next to at a dinner party?

To guarantee a highly entertaining dinner party it would be hard to go past skilled raconteurs like Billy Connolly and Stephen Fry – though I might not get a word in edgeways. In addition, both would have fascinating insights from their lived experiences with brain disorders.

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