Can twins help you to answer your research questions?
The Australian Twin Registry is based in the Department of Population Health and is a valuable resource available to all researchers. Twin research is helping us to better understand genetic and environmental causes in many diseases from epilepsy to cancer.
A recent mental health study facilitated by the Australian Twin Registry (ATR) highlighted some of the unexpected benefits that can result from research participation.
The study entitled The Emotional Wellbeing Project collects a range of measures that include genetics, brain measures, body measures and behaviour, in order to fully understand what underlies resilience and wellbeing.
By comparing over 1500 identical and non-identical twins, the study aims to identify the gene, stress and brain markers that predict emotional resilience and wellbeing over time. By examining healthy twins, researchers are hoping to better understand those factors that may protect someone from becoming mentally ill, even if they have been exposed to some risk factors.
Identical twin brothers Craig and Brenton Gurney were two of the twins that participated in this study - and received an unexpected benefit; discovery of a rare brain tumour. Their story is the more extraordinary as it was Brenton who was concerned at first that he may have a brain tumour because of constant headaches. Brenton decided to join the twin research study which involved undertaking a brain MRI and he encouraged Craig to also participate.
According to the twins, Craig’s illness has reinforced to them the importance of giving back to the community.“I found out about my tumour when I was volunteering with the Australian Twin Registry,” Craig explains. “I thought I was participating in a research study as a way of helping others but, as it turned out, it probably saved my life.”
Aside from the personal benefit to the Gurney twins, there are some interesting results arising from the study’s preliminary analyses. The researchers have found that genetics contributes more to some brain regions than others – and that the difference mostly relates to the speed of processing involved.
It appears that genetics play a significant role in the structure of ‘cortical’ brain regions such as the frontal cortex which is responsible for controlled emotion processing - driving our behaviour and coping mechanisms. In contrast,our environment influences the subcortical regions of the brain such as the amygdala and brainstem that are involved in the automatic, non-conscious processing of innate danger cues.
These results will be published in an upcoming special issue of the Twin Research and Human Genetics journal in June 2012.
For more information on other projects that the ATR have been involved in see: http://www.twins.org.au .
To find out how twins can help you answer your research questions and to understand more about twin methodology see: http://www.twins.org.au/researchers