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Brain clinician joins team at Southern Cross University


Brigid Veale
14 May 2009
Like a kid in a candy store’ is how Jim Donnelly describes his move to Southern Cross University’s Coffs Harbour campus and the opportunities to combine research and clinical practice in neuropsychology and psychophysiology.

After three years as the head of neuropsychology and psychology at the Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick, Dr Donnelly said he was looking forward to teaching and developing collaborative local research programs, studying brain functioning in children and older adults.

Dr Donnelly is hoping to combine his research activities with a private clinical practice in Coffs Harbour for children who have had a brain injury or tumour. He also works with parents and teachers who support these children.

“I bring some specialised skills for assessing brain functioning, called neuropsychological assessment,” he said. “Frequently people in regional areas have to go elsewhere to get this type of testing done.”

Dr Donnelly said the assessments can also be used for children who might have a medical condition, such as epilepsy, where attention or thinking can be disrupted.

“You want to do a customised battery of tests and include input from parents and teachers to understand the child’s strengths and relative weaknesses. I try to come up with a cognitive rehabilitation program that allows them to cope more effectively at home or at school,” he said.

“Similarly, I work with older adults who are having trouble with their memory or attention. Maybe their functioning on daily tasks is starting to decrease more than expected for someone their age. Sometimes someone notes a change themselves or maybe a carer or family member becomes worried.”

He said the goal with older people was to help them remain independent for as long as possible and retain their sense of dignity.

“I need to collaborate with rehabilitation physicians, GPs and agencies already providing services and see if I can help inform the process. Like everyone, older adults want to manage their own lives and continue doing the things they enjoy or find meaningful,” Dr Donnelly said.

“It’s very costly to have someone go into residential care, and psychologically it’s very challenging for the person or their family to make that decision.

“We want to help people remain living where they want to live.

“For me, the kind of research I do in the laboratory or the community has to have some application to real life problems.”

Dr Donnelly is no stranger to the Mid North Coast, having worked at the University of New England in Armidale for five years prior to his appointment at the Sydney Children’s Hospital. While in Armidale, he made regular trips to Sawtell and Coffs Harbour to cycle and visit the beach.

He is originally from the United States, where he completed an undergraduate degree in biological sciences and psychology at the University of California at Irvine in Orange County. He then did his graduate training at Nashville’s, Vanderbilt University then went back to the University of California at San Francisco for advanced training in clinical and neuropsychology.

“I grew up with nine brothers and sisters, three grandparents and a dog named Lucky who always looked depressed – maybe that was the beginning of my psychological mindedness – empathising with Lucky,” Dr Donnelly said.

“I grew up in northern New Jersey but I ran away after year nine to New York City, and then went to California with the US Air Force. The Air Force was at first my way to avoid getting drafted into the Marines and going to Vietnam but I was lucky to meet some great mentors who pointed me toward university units they offered on the military base.

“After four years of fixing planes on grave shift and taking classes during the day, I headed to pre-medical training. One of my fascinations was the brain. I did brain research on rats and kittens which never really sat well with me.

“Aside from being allergic to rats and kittens, I also got too attached and gave them names. One day the air-conditioning broke in the lab I was working in and all the rats I had raised from pups, died! The same afternoon I had an offer to work on a study on how age affected the human brain.

“I worked with a lot of very passionate brain researchers who were also talented clinical psychologists or neuropsychologists. They really fired up my curiosity about the brain and taught me about the human side of brain problems.”

As part of his early work in psychotherapy, Dr Donnelly was involved in stress management counselling with people working in the movie industry in Hollywood.

“We were working with the young starlets who had come to Hollywood to be discovered ... the stress associated with rejection and other harsh realities was torturous for some, but it was of their choosing,” he said.

During that time Dr Donnelly also worked with Joan Collins, whose eight-year-old daughter had been in a coma after a near-fatal car accident.

“We worked with Ms Collins and her daughter. She was absolutely remarkable as a mother helping her daughter recover in the hospital and when she returned to school. She wrote a book about the struggle from a mum’s perspective.

“We looked at changes in the daughter’s brain functioning over time to understand what helped her memory. In elementary school she was coping okay, but when she got to adolescence she struggled with the rapid exchange of social cues that goes on among teenagers.

“The psychophysiology side of my research tries to measure the small changes in our brains, facial muscles, and skin as we process these subtle emotional cues. It seems that problems in social information processing can set the stage for a range of behaviour problems.”

Dr Donnelly said he was now very happy to be in Coffs Harbour and to have the opportunity to teach, continue his research, and hopefully share his enthusiasm with students at Southern Cross University.

“We know very little – it’s really like space or the ocean. We know only a fraction of what really goes on with the brain so there’s always opportunity to do a better job of assessment and intervention,” he said.

Photo: Jim Donnelly is delighted to have the opportunity combine research and clinical practice in neuropsychology and psychophysiology in Coffs Harbour.