BrainPark is Monash University’s new neuroscience research lab, purpose-built to probe addictions and compulsions. But it doesn’t look anything like a clinic. It's anything but clinical; rather, it's full of natural light and is comfortable. It might be, at first glance, an upmarket gym or a wellness centre.
But this is exactly how the brains behind BrainPark (director Professor Murat Yucel and deputy director Dr Rebecca Segrave) wanted it to be.
“A high-quality place that would make people who come here feel like they are high quality,” says Dr Segrave.
The idea was to build an inclusive and welcoming place where those suffering from addictions and compulsions would feel comfortable and valued while having their brains studied. The soft architecture and design, however, hides a technological facility unique in the world.
“It's inspiring, curious and inviting,” says Professor Yucel. “It's not institutional or problem-orientated. It's an inviting space – it’s a mix of science, technology, lifestyle and art, and when someone comes in they can see and experience all of that.”
BrainPark is a two-level building at the existing Monash Biomedical Imaging facility. The bottom floor (including a gym and technologically advanced cycle room) is to develop physical interventions, the upper floor for mental or brain-based interventions.
It's a research-only facility at this stage, partnered with organisations such as The Melbourne Clinic, Turning Point, Torus Games and the YMCA to find new participants to test interventions and disseminate findings.
It was made possible by philanthropic investment from the David Winston Turner Endowment Fund, as well as Monash University co-funding.
"Our goal is to give people accessible interventions that are effective and accessible. Many people in need are not getting these at the moment.”
BrainPark will study compulsive behaviours – right across the spectrum, from unhealthy habits such as excessive internet use and eating, through to clinical conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), substance addiction or behavioural addictions.
It's already been dubbed a “playground for the brain” – part body gym, part mind gym, part wellness centre and state-of-the-art research clinic.
“But it is, at the core, a neuroscience facility,” says Professor Yucel. “It's built to be a rigorous scientific platform. It might seem like just a gym, but there's all this deep science and knowledge in the way it's designed, the way we will run things.
“It’s a hard balance, because all the way through for the people we'll be seeing, the big problems are stigma and engagement. The way it will be done – in a fun way – is great, but you can’t make too much fun of a serious situation. Our goal is to give people accessible interventions that are effective and accessible. Many people in need are not getting these at the moment.”
BrainPark has five zones for its five ‘interventions’ or methods.
- therapeutic virtual reality
- brain stimulation
- physical exercise
- meditation and yoga
- cognitive training.
The virtual reality zone is particularly innovative – participants can be immersed in virtual environments that trigger their problematic behaviours, such as pubs, casinos, pokies or, for those with OCD, unclean spaces such as bathrooms or kitchens. They can also record their own environments for use in virtual reality. Working with the BrainPark team, they can use these realistic but safe virtual words to learn new responses to old problems.
The exercise spaces are there because of evidence that many kinds of physical exercise are good for the brain and can enhance aspects of brain health, such as generating new brain cells, new connections between cells, and improving emotional and cognitive functioning.
The aim is that about 30 researchers and clinicians will use BrainPark to test new treatments. Instead of focusing on the problem – whether it be cannabis or alcohol or online compulsions – the centre will instead focus on cognitive, motivational and brain systems that trigger people’s compulsions, addictions or habits. These may turn out to be common systems for very different behaviours. Even the system used to assess participants flips the accepted wisdom on its head.
“Previously, assessment would focus on the behaviour,” says Professor Yucel. “Such as the alcohol, the cannabis or the gambling. Questions would be around how much and how often. But in our assessments we won’t necessarily ask those questions; we're more focusing on questions like, ‘Why do you do it? Is it something about the reward, or is it that it lowers your stress, or you escape, or you have difficulties with impulse control?
"This might not just lead to answers about the alcohol or gambling, but it might lead to explanations of a number of addictive or compulsive behaviours that often go together.”
Part of BrainPark’s cognitive assessment armoury is purpose-built iPad games that tap into the motivational drivers of human behaviour.
The yoga and meditation studio, with a spectacular angled and circular window, is a joy.
The centrepiece of the new facility is a giant brain sculpture hanging from the ceiling, made of Perspex and LED lights, which lights up to show neurological pathways in action.
A participant with OCD, for example, would be able to see from the light exactly how his or her brain activates when they feel that urge to perform a compulsion. It was designed by Paul Lim from Additive Lighting; he usually designs for events or theatre.
“The brain tells a story,” Lim says. “It lights in certain ways to show how habits build, how fear and reward work in the brain, how addiction happens.
“I feel like I have an honorary neuroscience degree now,” he laughs.
The building was designed by Melbourne firm Splinter Society, which has also designed Brunswick live music venue and bar Howler, the restaurant Cutler & Co, as well as homes and apartment blocks, advertising agencies and a project for an Indigenous owners' association in Queensland.
Splinter Society director Chris Stanley said BrainPark, given what it would be used for and the mix of participants coming through, was an “interesting” brief.
“We needed to create a warm, welcoming and comforting environment, but also something to be used for complicated science and cutting-edge research.”
He says it was important to give the spaces “transparency”, which literally means the ability to see through walls, the opposite of the way a traditional hospital or clinic looks. “It’s about creating spaces that people are comfortable in,” he says.
The science inside the facility is clearly the most important thing. Compulsive behaviours are under-researched and not widely provided for in the community. However, the way the building looks and feels will help in getting the best out of participants and their brains, the researchers say.