Cognitive Fitness

Professor Murat Yücel

Group Leader | Director of Mental Health & Neuroscience Program

The Cognitive Fitness Group uses cognitive neuroscience to create digital tools that measure, monitor and help optimise brain health.

Professor Murat Yücel’s work primarily focuses on developing innovative approaches to Digital Medicine. This includes:

(i) a gamified measurement tool for assessing cognitive and brain function for use in clinical research, aiming to comprehend the cognitive mechanisms of clinical dysfunction and guide mechanism-targeting interventions to enhance them;

(ii) an ultra-brief tool for measuring cognitive fitness in clinical conditions, which can be used to build resilience against mental ill-health and improve performance in high-stakes situations, such as those faced by first responders, military professionals, and competitive athletes.

The novel Digital Medicine also includes an interactive virtual reality platform that delivers exposure/response prevention interventions for disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and gambling disorder.

Professor Murat Yücel is also involved in clinical trials in Lifestyle Medicine, focusing on the neural and cognitive effects of physical exercise and mindfulness meditation. Additionally, he participates in clinical trials of Psychedelic Medicine, examining the cognitive and mental health effects of psilocybin and MDMA.

CURRENT RESEARCH

  • Boosting Societal Adaptation and Mental Health in a Rapidly Digitalizing, Post-Pandemic Europe (Bootstrap)

Adolescents are at particularly high risk for digital technology overuse, including in response to the COVID pandemic, and are therefore vulnerable for its potential harmful effects on mental health. Problematic usage of the internet (PUI) is thought to represent a marker of disrupted self-management, with major consequences for individual and societal health and wellbeing. Bootstrap brings together a multidisciplinary consortium aiming to initiate health and social policy and practice change designed to reduce the harmful effects of digitalization on mental health, particularly for young people. We will co-create a digital screening and assessment platform to understand which individuals are at-risk for developing PUI. Algorithm-based models will be used to predict which individual will benefit from which type of self-management intervention, and these preventative behavioural interventions will be tested for their (cost-) effectiveness. Finally, we will develop a policy toolkit in codesign with stakeholders, to promote human digital rights accountability at the local, national, and European level. Bootstrap will provide unprecedented scientific knowledge on the psychological mechanisms underlying (risk for) PUI and potential interventions. Improved self-management and tools to optimize healthy internet usage will promote mental health and prevent mental ill health in adolescents and contribute to reducing stigma. In addition, our policy toolkit will empower policy makers and private companies to (self)regulate with the intent to protect vulnerable groups. In the long run, Bootstrap will thus contribute to improving mental wellbeing across Europe and beyond.

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS: Naomi Fineberg, Mathias Brand, Zsolt Demetrovics, Célia Sales, Samuel Chamberlain, Lior Carmi, Shai Fine, Joseph Zohar, Hans-Jürgen Rumpf, Jose Menchon, Andres Roman-Urrestarazu, Mart Susi, Julius Burkauskas, Christian Montag, Katajun Lindenberg, Anja Huizink, Diane Ouakil, Stefano Pallanti, Nicholas Morgan, Susanne Walitza, Andrea Czako, Murat Yücel
ASSOCIATE INVESTIGATORS: Lucy Albertella, Chang Liu, Chao Suo, Kristian Rotaru
FUNDING: EU-Horizon Funding Scheme
YEARS: 2023-2027

  • Cognitive Fitness Assessment: CF2 Delphi Translation

First responders, defence personnel, and elite athletes rely on optimal cognitive performance in dynamic situations, crucial for decision-making and for saving lives. Building on ten key cognitive factors, we collaborate with experts to create a toolkit for precise assessment and enhancement of high-performance cognition. This tool, sensitive to individual differences, establishes a cognitive baseline and predicts personnel trajectories, improving performance under pressure.

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS: Murat Yücel, Lucy Albertella, Chao Suo, Kristian Rotaru, Eugene Aidman
ASSOCIATE INVESTIGATORS: Rebecca Kirkham, Chang Liu
FUNDUNG: Department of Defence & Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG)
YEARS: 2022-2024

  • Computational Cognitive Neuroscience Framework for Attentional Control Traits and States

To create and validate a comprehensive Attention Control Battery (ACB) for Defence, evaluating its correlations with physiological stress and broader cognitive fitness factors to ultimately predict performance in complex military tasks. Theme 1 concentrates on comparing existing attentional control measurement tools, crafting the ACB, and establishing links between cognitive models and neural models. Theme 2 involves physiological challenges to test the ACB and cognitive fitness batteries, assessing training gains under stress. Theme 3 develops complex real-world tasks for performance testing. The study aims to provide Defence with reliable and scalable tools for selecting and training individuals based on attention control factors crucial for high performance in complex military tasks under stress.

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS: Andrew Heathcote, Guy Hawkins, Shayne Loft, Andrew Neal, Frederick Rohan Walker, Murat Yücel, Todd Braver
ASSOCIATE INVESTIGATORS: Lucy Albertella
FUNDING: Australia–Us Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (AUS-MURI)
YEARS: 2023-2027

  • Developing a Digital Cognitive Assessment Tool to Measure Brain Ill-Health and Brain Peak-Health

Neurocognitive processes play a pivotal role in the development and progression of mental ill-health. The CogFlo app represents a paradigm shift in neurocognitive assessment. It fast tracks the translation of a consensus-derived neurocognitive framework for mental health into a neuroscience-informed, accessible, engaging and purpose-built tool to assess neurocognitive functions key to human motivation and decision-making. This tool has now been adopted by many leading researchers and organisations across the world including USA, UK, Europe, S.Africa, S.America. The tool has also been adopted by the Australian Defence Force as a template to develop an assessment toolkit that indexes key cognitive drivers of high performance under pressure. These cognitive processes exhibit dynamism, evolving and displaying distinct patterns in relation to different scenarios across different timescales (e.g., consuming excess sugar or caffeine, lack of sleep, long periods of stress), which are beyond the reach of traditional cognitive assessments. Targeting cognitions that underpin optimal performance also serve as resilience factors that protect against mental illness. Finally, the Tool will soon be used to assess the mental health of thousands of people by the U.S. National Institutes of Health as part of the ‘All of Us’ study (www.allofus.nih.gov), as well as the European Unions’ ‘Bootstrap’ study (https://www.internetandme.eu/naomi-fineberg).

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS: Murat Yücel, Lucy Albertella, Chao Suo, Kristian Rotaru et al
ASSOCIATE INVESTIGATORS: Chang Liu, Erynn Christensen, Karyn Richardson
FUNDING: Diverse
YEARS: Ongoing

  • Implementing Therapeutic Virtual Reality into Mental Health Care

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is marked by intrusive, repetitive thoughts and behaviours aimed at alleviating distress, with approximately 50% of OCD individuals dealing with contamination-related symptoms. Although Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) stands as the primary psychological treatment, its success is only moderate, accompanied by high dropout rates. There’s a need for strategies to boost the acceptability and effectiveness of ERP. Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology that enables users to navigate and interact with three-dimensional computer-generated environments, providing a more immersive experience than traditional computer screens. VR presents a practical solution by immersing patients in anxiety-inducing yet safe environments within a controlled clinical setting. In our lab, we’re evaluating the efficacy, tolerability, and feasibility of VR-ERP for contamination subtype OCD. We’re also exploring whether VR-ERP delivers comparable treatment benefits with quicker results and fewer dropouts compared to in-vivo ERP. In the future, our goal is to extend this research to include gambling disorder and alcohol use disorders.

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS: Murat Yücel, Chao Suo, Kristian Rotaru, Lucy Albertella et al
FUNDING: Diverse
YEARS: Ongoing

  • Psilocybin-assisted Psychotherapy for Generalised Anxiety Disorder (Psi-GAD-1)

The Psi-GAD-1 project, conducted in partnership with the Clinical Psychedelic Research Lab, is a world-first clinical trial testing psilocybin-assisted therapy in the treatment of a primary anxiety disorder. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a chronic, relapsing disorder characterised by excessive anxiety and worry. GAD is a relatively common disorder (about 4-6% lifetime prevalence in Australia) that has generally poor treatment outcomes. Within recent trials, psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy led to reductions in anxiety symptoms associated with terminal cancer diagnoses. With 72 participants, this investigator-initiated trial sponsored by Monash University is the largest psychedelic trial in Australia to date. It is a well-controlled study (double-blind, active placebo) that includes a range of treatment innovations and the development of a specialised therapist training program.

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS: Paul Liknaitzky, Murat Yücel, Suresh Sundram et al
FUNDING: Incannex Healthcare Limited & Monash University
YEARS: 2021-2024

  • MDMA-assisted Psychotherapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (MMP-1)

This open-label trial, conducted in partnership with the Clinical Psychedelic Research Lab, will examine the safety and efficacy of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a debilitating condition linked to substantial distress, low quality of life and increased suicidality, and has a lifetime prevalence of ~12% in Australia. The use of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) in combination with psychotherapy has been shown to be safe and effective for treating intractable PTSD.

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS: Paul Liknaitzky, Murat Yücel, Suresh Sundram et al
FUNDING: Philanthropy (Strauss)
YEARS: 2023-2024

Staff

  • Dr Lucy Albertella
  • Dr Chang Liu
  • Dr Chao Suo

Co-Investigator

  • Professor Eugene Aidman
  • Professor Samuel Chamberlain
  • Dr Paul Liknaitzky
  • Associate Professor Kristian Rotaru
  • Professor Suresh Sundram