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Researcher Spotlight – Dr Adam Walker

6 July 2023

Image of Adam Walker shown from the waist up, looking at the camera. Adam wears a burgundy jumper and shirt, standing in front of a grey background.Dr Adam Walker, Trisno Family Research Fellow

Mood disorders research driven by compassion

What area of research do you specialise in?

My research interests predominantly lie in the fields of behavioural neuroscience and biological psychiatry. I specialise in the investigation of biological markers of treatment response in mood disorders (for example, major depression or bipolar disorders).

Ho long have you been in the field? Did you do anything different before this?

My PhD research (2012-2016) involved using a pre-clinical model of antidepressant resistance to investigate the (then) novel rapid treatment effects of ketamine, and the potential of lithium as an adjunctive therapy in depression.

Since graduating, I have transitioned into clinical research, joining IMPACT and working to advance biological marker investigations for TRIALS, the Clinical Trials and Interventional theme.

What makes you passionate about this area?

While current gold-standard treatments are certainly useful, for many people experiencing mood disorders (30%-50%), initial treatment will be insufficient. And the likelihood of remission drops with each attempt.

Early on in my PhD, I read William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990). I think that is when it really hit me, just how insidious and intractable depression can be. Though short in length, the book is a heavy read; I felt it afforded readers a little insight into the oppressive sorrow of the dark in depression, and emergence into the light with recovery.

Mood disorders are thought to be progressive in nature, especially when not effectively treated. And with so many people experiencing a mood episode each year, it is more important than ever that people get the right help, right out of the gate. If we can identify some indicators (or biomarkers) to help guide treatment, I feel we may be able to improve illness trajectory and reduce the burden of depressive episodes.

What is your current focus?

I am currently focused on examining biological analytes in blood samples of participants of the past adjunctive treatment trials that were led by Associate Professor Olivia Dean and Professor Michael Berk.

Through a collaboration with Professor Sophie Erhardt and Dr Lilly Schwieler of Karolinska Institute in Sweden, we no have some great data – which I ma eager to finish analysing – on a handful of peripheral tryptophan metabolites in plasma samples from more than 400 clinical trial participants who were currently experiencing a depressive episode.

What does an average work week look like? 

I feel this is a bit of a common answer in research – but things can vary a lot week to week. I might be sending a bunch of emails, writing a grant application, advising on a student project, analysing data, presenting at a conference, writing up a manuscript, or providing edits, or completing peer review.

I am not really a wet-la scientist, nor am I a trial clinician (although I do have some experience in these areas). I try to fill the niche space between the two and rely on the brilliance of collaborators and colleagues around me to help achieve our research goals. IMPACT is a great place for this.

What has driven you to research in this area?

I did not really set out to be a researcher. When I was finishing high school, I wanted to be a physiotherapist: during my undergraduate studies, perhaps a psychologist? But as I grew to understand myself a little better, I realised that a clinical job was not for me. In school, I was always the kid in class with questions. I get curious. And I find myself drawn to understanding more about these kinds of phenomena. I chose a double major in neuroscience and psychology in my undergraduate studies at The University of Melbourne. Passing up an offer of honours in neuroscience at Melbourne, I opted to complete my fourth year at Deakin University, in psychology, which included a student project investigating treatment resistance in depression. After our project was completed, my then-supervisor, Dr Susannah Tye, suggested research (and a PhD) might be a good option for me – and the rest is history.

Tell us about some of your career highlights.

Concurrent with my PhD, I was fortunate enough to complete a year-long research traineeship in the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Psychology in Minnesota with Dr Tye (now at Queensland Brain Institute). Other highlights include joining IMPACT in 2017 and being appointed the Deakin University Trisno Family Research Fellow in 2019 and 2021. This fellowship is co-funded by the philanthropic Trisno Family Gift, Deakin University, and CREDIT CRE (an NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence). It is designed to support research investigating new biologically based treatments for psychiatric disorders. Another was being named an associate investigator on the Mental Health Australia General Clinical Trial Network (MAGNET).

What was your career highlight in 2022?

For me, it was working on an invited opinion piece with A/Prof. Dean titled ‘Current approaches to precision medicine in psychiatry: Are we just spinning our wheels?’ This was published in European Neuropsychopharmacology.

Where next?

For me, 2023 marks 10 years since I began my journey in research. The coming year is about getting more of our results out there, while working with our wonderful collaborators: Dr Zoe Lui and Professor Ken Walder in the IMPACT Psychiatric Biomarkers Discovery Group, Dir Dhama Eratne and Professor Dennis Velakoulis in the MiND Study, and Dr Schwieler and Pro. E Erhardt at Karolinska.


This Researcher Spotlight was originally published in the Deakin Unersity IMPACT Annual Report 2022.