You and Your CourseOpportunities
Research and Teaching
Our ResearchResearch Degrees
Partners and Community
Partner with JCU
- About JCUPartner with JCU
- Careers and Employability
- College of Arts, Society and Education
- College of Healthcare Sciences
- College of Medicine and Dentistry
- Division of Tropical Environments and Societies
- International Students
- JCU Eduquarium
- Open Day
- Parents and Partners
- Pathways to University
- JCU Connect
- Scholarships @ JCU
- Media & Comms
- Australian Institute of Tropical Health & Medicine
- About JCU
Featured News The root of the problem
The root of the problem
A James Cook University medical researcher is paving the way for earlier and more accurate identification of mental health disorders in children – by reading their hair.
Dr Hani Mikhail’s groundbreaking Townsville-based research project is investigating the potential for the measurement of cortisol, a stress-related hormone stored in hair, to help screen children for a range of mental conditions, as well as flag those at risk of developing one.
“The current model of mental health relies on analysing symptoms and their impact on a patient’s life, then trying to figure out what is going on at a psychological level.
“There is no way of looking beneath the surface, and treatment can involve a long process of trial and error,” said the Rockhampton Base Hospital intern, who began his research as an honours student last year.
“Cortisol is the primary chronic stress hormone of the endocrine system, and assists in the fight, flight or freeze response. As a bio marker, it may assist in reducing treatment delays, by helping to flag mental illnesses before symptoms even arise.
“This is particularly important in the context of child psychiatry, as symptoms are a lot more non-specific and early interventions often have life-long ramifications.”
Dr Mikhail’s study is the first Australian research project to trial the collection and analysis of hair cortisol from children visiting a mental health facility.
His primary goal is to see hair cortisol employed as a diagnostic tool to screen and identify children at risk, before they tip over the edge.
“Ultimately, my colleagues and I want to see hair cortisol enable clinicians to detect if a child is brewing a mental health disorder, before they show any symptoms – so they can intervene to prevent something bad happening later on,” he said.
Since December last year, the researcher has collected hair samples and background questionnaire data from over 150 children, aged five to 18, who have attended the Child and Youth Mental Health Service in Townsville. Each child has contributed strands of hair at least three centimetres in length for analysis.
“Just like a tree, when you cut it down and can see the rings which record each year of growth, each centimeter of hair collected is roughly equivalent to one month of growth,” Dr Mikhail said.
“So we can analyse the cortisol level in a particular segment of hair and say, ‘three months ago, this is what your average stress level was like. What was happening then?’”
He said that previous studies have indicated that cortisol levels can change significantly in response to stress imposed by an existing mental health disorder, or due to external stress factors that could herald the onset of a mental health problem. Conditions such as depression and psychosis raise cortisol levels, while anxiety disorders actually do the opposite.
“Bizarrely enough, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and eating disorders all tend to decrease the hair cortisol,” Dr Mikhail said. “The theory is that these people have been chronically stressed for so long that the endocrine system begins to tire and starts to suppress itself.”
About half of the study participants initially assessed by the Townsville clinic were accepted for treatment. The current phase of the researcher’s study will examine hair cortisol samples to see if they predict which children were deemed in need of clinical assistance.
“You would expect the children who didn’t get accepted for treatment to have hair cortisol that was not deranged,” he said.
The study will also investigate whether hair cortisol levels can distinguish differing clinical diagnoses, as well as explore potential links between hair cortisol and mental health risk factors identified in the study questionnaire.
“Does domestic violence, family mental health or issues at school highly correlate with hair cortisol levels?” Dr Mikhail said. “Is there another factor more important than we think it is?”
Dr Mikhail plans to continue and expand the project to recruit more participants, hopefully from additional clinical sites.
His work is being supervised by JCU neuroscientist, Professor Zoltan Sarnyai, and JCU’s Head of Psychiatry, Professor Brett McDermott.
- James Cook University
- Bachelor of Advanced Science
- Bachelor of Arts
- Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences
- Bachelor of Business
- Bachelor of Business / Laws
- Bachelor of Business & Environmental Science
- Bachelor of Dental Surgery
- Bachelor of Early Childhood Education
- Bachelor of Primary Education
- Bachelor of Secondary Education
- Bachelor of Environmental Practice
- Bachelor of Geology
- Bachelor of Information Technology
- Bachelor of Laws
- Bachelor of Nursing Science (External)
- Bachelor of Midwifery
- Bachelor of Pharmacy
- Bachelor of Physiotherapy
- Bachelor of Planning
- Bachelor of Psychological Science
- Bachelor of Science
- Bachelor of Social Work
- Bachelor of Speech Pathology
- Bachelor of Sport & Exercise Science
- Bachelor of Veterinary Science
- Bachelor of Clinical Sciences (Honours)
- Bachelor of Engineering (Honours)
- Bachelor of Engineering / Science (Honours) MBA in Tourism
- Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine
- Master of Data Science
- Bachelor of Sports Psychology
- Bachelor of Marine Science
- Bachelor of Medicine / Surgery
- Bachelor of Nursing Science [Pre-Registration]
- Bachelor of Medical Laboratory Science (Honours)
- Bachelor of Occupational Therapy (Honours)
- Bachelor of Psychology
- Master of Conflict Management & Resolution
- Graduate Certificate of Conflict Management & Resolution
- Master of Global Development
- Master of International Tourism & Hospitality Management
- Bachelor of Technology and Innovation
- Bachelor of Science & Bachelor of Laws
- Diploma of Higher Education
- Diploma of Higher Education (Business)
- Diploma of Higher Education Majoring in Business Studies
- Diploma of Higher Education Majoring in Engineering and Applied Science
- Diploma of Higher Education Majoring in General Studies
- Diploma of Higher Education Majoring in Health
- Diploma of Higher Education Majoring in Information Technology
- Diploma of Higher Education Majoring in Science
- Diploma of Higher Education, Majoring in Society and Culture