Project Title

Validating the clinical staging model of mood and psychotic disorders using brain-based measures

Project Type



Research interests of the research team offering the project

  • Identifying the (neurobiological) mechanisms of mood and anxiety disorders.
  • Integrating clinical, psychosocial, neurobiological, and genetic data through computational modelling and machine learning methods.
  • Dissecting the clinical and biological heterogeneity of the diagnoses and predicting the course of mood and anxiety disorders.

Details of the project

An estimated 75 per cent of major psychiatric disorders begin before the age of 25 years, but the boundaries between different major psychiatric disorders are often unclear. The current DSM-based diagnostic categories are imperfect and people with the same or slightly different symptoms may end up with different or multiple diagnoses.

It is suggested that mental disorder life histories may be better described by the severity, duration, and diversity of the disorder, rather than by one diagnosis. A clinical staging model has therefore been suggested for mental illness, where a distinction can be made between early (subthreshold) and later stages (more persistent and severe) of illness. A major knowledge gap however exists, as the differentiation of these stages has not been validated with neurobiological brain patterns identified in people with emerging mood or psychotic syndromes. It remains an open question whether young people in different stages of illness show distinct or discernible brain patterns (structure, function).

We therefore need to attempt to validate clinical staging by using neurobiological measures. Another aim is deriving an alternative staging classification based on brain imaging data (neurobiological staging). Data from different projects and consortia (including ENIGMA) will be used in this project to better understand and validate staging of mood and anxiety disorders.

We are looking for a candidate with:

  • a scientific mindset, critical thinking capacity and a strong interest in analytic modelling and clinical neuroscience;
  • excellent communication skills (written and spoken English) and the ability of working in a team; and
  • experience with brain imaging techniques, for example functional and structural MRI, statistical analysis, and experience desired with programming (for example R, Matlab, Python).

Project references

  1. Berk M, Post R, Ratheesh A, Gliddon E, Singh A, Vieta E, ... Dodd S. Staging in bipolar disorder: from theoretical framework to clinical utility. World Psychiatry. 2017;16(3), 236-244.
  2. Iorfino F, Scott EM, Carpenter JS, Cross SP, Hermens DF, Killedar M, ... Hickie IB. Clinical stage transitions in persons aged 12 to 25 years presenting to early intervention mental health services with anxiety, mood, and psychotic disorders. JAMA psychiatry. 2019;76(11), 1167-1175.
  3. Shah JL, Scott J, McGorry PD, Cross SP, Keshavan MS, Nelson B, ... International Working Group on Transdiagnostic Clinical Staging in Youth Mental Health. Transdiagnostic clinical staging in youth mental health: a first international consensus statement. World Psychiatry. 2020;19(2), 233-242.

Scholarships and fees

A stipend is not available for this PhD project.

Scholarships are available through the University of Melbourne – find out more here. Other scholarship opportunities may also be available but are highly competitive, so please speak to the contact person below for further details.

Information on fees for domestic and international students is available here.

How to apply

  1. Read information for future students here and check your eligibility here.
  2. Read our frequently asked questions here.
  3. Liaise with, and gain the support of, the supervisor/s. Please contact them using the details below and attach a copy of your CV and university transcript(s). 
  4. Once you’ve gained supervisor support, follow the steps outlined by the University of Melbourne here. You can go straight to Step 3. 

You are strongly encouraged to submit your application as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.


Dr Laura Han