Chasing the Black Dog

At the Black Dog Institute, in Sydney, Australia, they aim to catch people before they fall. Who wouldn't help out if they had the chance?

 Illustration by  Emily Chandler

Illustration by Emily Chandler


Field Studies is a monthly column by Clare Watson, who travels around Australia and the world exploring science by participating in studies, visiting research institutes, going on trips with scientists, and a lot more.

Friday, April 15th, 2016

The orange trim of the building reminds me of a Penguin paperback. Like the book, its corridors are quiet but lined with character: between the doors labeled with academics’ names, there are framed sunrises and mounted shadows, but my favourite is a photograph of two grandmothers — a pair of old friends, fist-pumping. In the courtyard there is a statue of a muscular man sitting cross-legged, relaxed, with the head of a dog (its floppy ears relaxed, too) — when I’ve seen the same figure at a cafe it seems out of place, but it’s fitting here.

I’ve come to the Black Dog Institute today, not as a researcher, but to participate in a study called Bipolar Kids and Sibs. The Black Dog Institute in Randwick, Sydney, conducts world-leading research into mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, and the study I’ve volunteered for looks at children and young adults (12 to 30 years old) living with bipolar, as well as their unaffected siblings. It aims to identify what makes people more or less likely to develop bipolar disorder so that we can “catch them before they fall”.

My brother, my only sibling, lives with bipolar, a condition that he was diagnosed with several years ago. The highs and lows of mood swings — which, depending on the individual, can transpire daily or once in a decade — can be exhausting and destabilising but my brother is much more than this condition. He is a film buff and a sports nut. He is incredibly intelligent and can read a book like he is flipping through a magazine. He is loyal and caring, and one of the most resilient people I know, even if some days he doesn’t feel so himself. 

He is also the most genetically similar person to me on this earth, aside from our parents, and yet our brains can function on different wavelengths. As I move through my twenties, I have become more aware of patterns and behaviours of my own brain that echo my brother’s descriptions of what it is like to have bipolar: feeling scattered after a night with little sleep or feeling like I am unable to tame racing thoughts. I’m curious about the wiring of my own brain, and, as a scientist, I have recently started critically observing oscillations in my brain function. I signed up for the study at the Black Dog Institute because I’m also interested to see what it feels like to be on the other side of a research study, to be the person in question and not the scientist looking for answers.

The day has started simply enough with a blood test, the nurse smiling at the sight of my juicy (and easily accessible) veins when I extended my arm. Genetic factors can account for around 80% of the cause of bipolar disorder and the condition can sometimes be traced through family trees; my blood sample will be used to look for genetic indicators of the disorder. 

Next were all sorts of interviews, some with personal questions (“On a good night, how many hours of sleep do you get on average?”) and others testing more abstract concepts (“Tell me about blame.”) There were hours of psychological computer-based testing. In one test I was asked to respond with the push of a button to white words that flashed on a black screen: Laughter — Friendship — Dull — Content — Alive — Alone — Crying — Smiles — Momentary.

It was exhausting trying to answer each question truthfully, focusing intently on a black screen in anticipation of the next stimulus and trying to recall strings of numbers and letters to repeat them in numerical and alphabetical order. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t switch off my science brain, analysing what the researchers could possibly be testing for with each question or task.

I think I slipped into a few microsleeps while lying in the MRI machine. Sliding into the doughnut was comfortable and I soon let my breathing sync to the heavy clunks of the magnetic machinery. To get a baseline scan, they asked me to first clear my mind of any thoughts, as best as I possibly could — an incredibly difficult task when enveloped by such a noisy instrument.

Closing my eyes, I tried to focus on the deep blue behind the kaleidoscope of pixels of residual light dancing across my eyelids. As testing proceeded black and white faces — some happy, others sad or disgusted — fleetingly appeared. The screen was shaking. Or was it my head, strapped into a crown, shaking with each thump of the machine? 

I’m not claustrophobic, but towards the end of the hour I was fighting against myself to not push the distress button. The weight of my head resting on hard plastic seared a fine point on back of my skull, like sunlight focused through a magnifying glass. I have never before appreciated how heavy my brain is. When the opening scene of Finding Nemo appeared on screen I thought, “Oh man, I’m going to be in here for a while yet,” but was relieved to find the movie was loaded in preparation of the next young patient, much braver than me, who crawled out from under a cardboard box in the control room. 

The day at an end, my walnut-shaped brain had been pricked, probed and photographed from every angle. I won’t hear from the researchers at the Black Dog Institute for another year now. As a longitudinal study, Bipolar Kids and Sibs follows participants for a decade, repeating interviews on an annual basis. Until then, my neurons will be firing, my mind will be humming, my thoughts will be wandering — and I’ll be watching. 



For more information on the causes and symptoms of bipolar disorder, visit the Black Dog Institute’s website.

There you can also read some insightful personal accounts of living with bipolar disorder and depression.

Edited by Jack Scanlan