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By 2030, could we predict mental illness before it occurs?

Imagine a world where we know what causes schizophrenia – and can provide targeted treatments that stop it developing.

Imagine a world where we know which children are most likely to develop psychotic symptoms, and can take action early to stop them developing serious mental illnesses that could ruin their lives.

Imagine a world where we can target individual brain circuits to save people from the suffering caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

Right now these might sound like pipedreams, but MQ researchers aren’t interested in settling for the status quo. Through cutting-edge research, they’re investigating all of the possibilities above. And they’re working to create a very different future – where our knowledge of mental illness means we no longer rely on trial-and-error treatments for problems that are already causing people to struggle.

If mental health research finally gets the support it needs, prevention could be at the heart of mental healthcare by 2030.

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Take Sergiu Pasca and his team at Stanford University. As the Californian sun beats down outside their lab, they spend their days studying tiny 3D ‘minibrains’ – each smaller than a garden pea.

Using those minibrains, made from stem cells taken from people who have schizophrenia, the team are investigating a question that could have profound consequences for our understanding of mental illness. Is it possible to see what is different in the brain circuitry of people who have schizophrenia?

It’s groundbreaking work, made possible by new technology that means scientists can now create parts of a working brain in the lab. And it could herald the latest step towards not only predicting mental illness – but preventing problems before they occur.

Research has the power to change our whole mindset about mental illness. We can’t keep accepting treatments that may or may not work; we need to understand how to prevent illnesses and effectively support recovery. 

Preventive physical healthcare is nothing new, of course. Everything from anti-smoking campaigns to cancer screenings to eating healthily to reduce the risk of diabetes are based on the same, familiar thinking: prevention is better than cure.

But for mental health, preventive care currently tends to focus mostly on wellbeing, and on the things we can do to reduce stress and anxiety. The Five Ways to Wellbeing – connecting with others, being active, taking notice of the world around us, continually learning, and giving to others – are a prime example of this.

But while wellbeing support is a vital part of mental healthcare, the work of scientists like Sergiu could radically expand and enhance our approach to prevention, potentially making it possible to avert more severe mental illnesses. His current focus is on schizophrenia, but his findings could apply to other conditions too. 

People with more serious mental illnesses currently die between 16 and 25 years earlier than the general population. This can’t be allowed to continue.

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While Sergiu and his team are focused on the biological causes of mental illness, Dr Helen Fisher and her team at King’s College London are investigating whether trauma can result in childhood psychotic symptoms.

Specifically, they’re trawling through DNA samples and existing studies to see how bullying, abuse and other traumatic events could lead to psychotic symptoms. It’s a serious issue, and one with significant long-term implications. 

“If you took a class of around 20 kids aged around 11 or 12, you might expect one or two of them to have psychotic symptoms,” Helen says.

“It can be pretty distressing in itself if you think people are trying to harm you or if you’re hearing a voice when no one else is around. But kids who have psychotic symptoms often have other problems as well: they’re more likely to be self-harming and to be depressed or anxious.”

“And they are at greater risk of developing schizophrenia, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and also attempting suicide in adulthood.”

It’s not hard to see, therefore, that the potential of Helen’s research is enormous. Pinpoint the causes of childhood psychotic symptoms and you’re much closer to being able to provide help before major problems occur.

Across the globe, MQ is funding projects like these designed to prevent mental illness – but far more support for research is needed.

In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, also funded by MQ, Susanne Ahmari is targeting OCD using a new technique called optogenics. It means she can isolate and study specific brain cells using targeted lights. Susanne is investigating whether abnormal brain signals could explain why OCD makes people repeat the same action over and over again. Solve that riddle and treatments that free people from this overwhelming disease become a genuine possibility. It’s another example of the incredible potential of mental health research.

Right now, while mental illness affects 23% of the UK population, less than 6% of money spent on health research goes towards studies on mental health.

Because mental health research funding is nowhere near where it needs to be, millions of people suffer unnecessarily, using treatments that aren’t effective and haven’t changed for decades. Imagine being able to say that about illnesses like cancer or heart disease – it’s unthinkable.

And that lack of research funding also means the answer to the question at the start of this article remains unclear. Could we predict mental illness by 2030? Absolutely. Researchers like Sergiu, Helen and Susanne are all hunting for mental health interventions that are both far more effective and could be delivered far earlier – potentially before problems even occur. 

But will we be able to predict mental illness by 2030? That’s a very different question. With research, it’s definitely true that a rising tide lifts all boats. More funding means more researchers working on related issues. It means more discoveries being shared and refined. It means more knowledge, more insight, more hope.

It means the potential for a world where we don’t just respond to mental illness – often badly – but where we’re ahead of it, able to give upfront support to people who we know are likely to struggle. That world is within reach, but only if mental health research is finally given the support, funding and attention it deserves. 

Last updated: 17 October 2017

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