Welcome to the live blog for the 2018 MQ Mental Health Science Meeting. We join you from the Barbican Centre in London as researchers, clinicians and members of the mental health community are taking their places ahead of what promises to be an inspiring event.
The theme of this year’s meeting is 'Towards Prevention and Early Intervention' and over the course of the next two days, we will be hearing from cutting-edge researchers from a range of disciplines.
Be sure to check in throughout the meeting for highlights and summaries from all of our fantastic speakers and remember that you can tweet us with the hashtag #MQScienceMeeting with any of your thoughts.
Save the date for our next Mental Health Science Meeting, it's happening on the 7th and 8th of February 2019!
Friday 2nd February 2018
16:15 – Final Words
Now its Sophie Dix to close the days proceedings, who starts by thanking all of those involved in the organisation of the meeting.
Sophie discusses some of MQ’s successes over the last year. MQ is now funding over 36 new research projects and is receiving more and more in charitable donations with each month that goes by.
Sophie now goes on to thank Cynthia Joyce, MQ’s Chief Executive, who will soon be moving to the USA to spread MQ’s message to a global audience. Lindsey Bennister will start as MQ’s new Chief Executive in May 2018, bringing with her a wealth of experience. There is a warm round of applause as Cynthia takes to the stage to thank all of those involved in making the last few years a great success.
That’s it for the live blog, hopefully you enjoyed hearing about the meeting and we will be back again next year!
15:15 – Panel Discussion: Is wellbeing missing the target? The current trend for improving mental wellbeing has significant support from the government but is this wider focus coming at the expense of targeted help for those that need it most?
We close the MQ Science Meeting with a panel discussion, chaired by Simon Wessely from Kings College London. He is joined on stage by Dr Martin Knapp (London School of Economics, UK), Ilina Singh (University of Oxford, UK), Catherine Newsome (Department for Education, UK Government) and Karina Chopra (Medical student and service user). You can follow the discussion for yourself using the live stream below:
If you’d sooner read updates, no need to fret as we will be taking you through the best points from our discussion right here on the live blog.
Catherine gets the ball rolling by highlighting the Children and Young People’s Mental Health green paper on children and young people’s mental health, which sets out the government’s ambition to ensure that those who need it are able to access the right help for their mental health. She calls for more suggestions and engagement in the project, directing people towards the webpage that allows people to get involved.
Discussion moves on to the financial effects of extending preventative programmes to all. Economic consequences have to be taken into account and the panel asks if large scale preventions make financial sense? Mental health funding has gone up overall, but the amount spent on targeted services for people with severe mental health problems has declined. Is this the best way to allocate our resources? Send us your comments through Twitter, we’re always keen to hear your thoughts!
An interesting point from the fantastic @Mental_Elf on Twitter, who has been with us for the duration of our meeting. Are universal approaches even effective?
A final question from the audience – what is the role of digital interventions in the future of preventative medicine? The panel is cautious on the subject, emphasising that it is very hard to substitute for human interactions, especially in relation to therapy.
That concludes the panel discussion, with far more points than we have been able to include in the blog. If you want to listen to the entire discussion, follow the link to our twitter page above and you'll be able to catch up on all that's been said.
14:30 – Keynote Three: Prevention in mental health, a train we should not miss. Not again.
Professor Celso Arango (Complutense University of Madrid, Spain)
Good afternoon and welcome back to the final session of what has been a fantastic meeting. Our final keynote address comes from Professor Celso Arango, who is speaking today about the feasibility of preventative interventions in the treatment of mental illness.
Celso sets the scene for his talk with a quote from the 19th Century social reformer, Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men”. Would it be better to treat the possible causes of mental illness in early life, before they have the opportunity to develop into serious health issues?
Celso goes on to talk about the success of preventative approaches in other disciplines of medicine – including cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Why isn’t the mental health community following the lead of these other research fields? This is the figurative train that Celso is referring to in the title of his talk and he emphasises that we can ill afford to miss out on the opportunities that preventative medicine may be able to provide.
Next, Celso introduces the critical early stages of brain development as prime opportunities for preventative interventions. He describes how in some cases, starting treatment when someone is 20 or 25 could already be too late to have significant effects on the brain as it has more or less reached its final size. This so called ‘therapeutic window’, where an individual is the most responsive to treatment, is where Celso thinks our efforts should be focused.
Echoing the messages of Thalia Eley from earlier today, Celso discusses some genetic factors that can be used to provide an early indicator of mental illness before symptoms are first observed. To demonstrate this point, he describes a study that focused on a group of people with genetic factors that lead to a very high risk of psychosis. Over 90% of the individuals in this group went on to develop a mental illness. Should we pre-emptively treat people in this high risk population even if they are not currently displaying signs of ill health?
For the remainder of his talk, Celso provides a series of examples to demonstrate the potential of mental health interventions in high risk populations. The data presented is convincing and I’m sure that we will be hearing plenty more on the subject in our upcoming panel discussion.
13:15 – Discussion
Straight into a panel discussion with our three speakers and there's plenty of interest in the ethical talking points raised during Camillia’s talk. A recurring theme – what are the implications that arise if we don’t intervene? Is it ethical to allow someone to become unwell if preventative treatments are available? This is clearly an incredibly difficult topic to find a concrete answer to and it is apparent that the needs of the individual receiving the treatment have to be respected.
Paul Ramchandani is asked if paternal depression can influence childhood development in the same way that maternal mental health problems can have negative effects on a child. Paul responds by describing how depression in both mothers and fathers can influence their offspring but the mechanisms responsible for this effect are complex and still need to be pieced apart. A detailed blog on this subject can be found on the Mental Elf website, for those looking for further reading.
Following the announcement of the poster prizes (keep an eye out for interviews with our winners in the MQ podcast soon!), we break for lunch. Plenty to discuss over our sandwiches, we’ll be back in an hour or so to take you through the final session of the day.
12:40 – The ethics of prevention and early intervention: some critical reflections
Dr Camillia Kong (University of Oxford, UK)
Dr Camillia Kong opens her talk by promising it’ll be provocative. Camillia is a philosopher by training and currently works as an ethicist at the University of Oxford. Today, Camillia will be speaking about the ethical implications associated with early interventions in the context of mental health.
Camillia introduces psychiatric genomics, a discipline which uses DNA samples and genetic data to identify the individuals that are more likely to develop mental health problems. Is it ethical to study DNA to guide preventative therapies? Could this approach increase stigma in the context of mental health?
Camillia Kong provides a more philosophical debate regarding the stigmatisation of those with #mentalhealth issues and the ethics of early intervention / prevention #MQScienceMeeting pic.twitter.com/RLmcavYNkg— David Howard (@Used_For_Glue) February 2, 2018
Camillia describes the ways that stigma can affect those with mental illnesses. Stigma can isolate individuals and can cause them to be discriminated against for being ‘different’. Camillia suggests that genetic testing should be approached with caution and that if care is not taken, such approaches may inadvertently cause stigma against those with mental health conditions to increase. How would this work? Camilla introduces a number of factors, including the observation that focusing on a person’s DNA may reinforce the notion that those with mental health problems are inherently ‘different’ from everyone else.
It is also important that we respect the way that people view their mental illness and understand that some people don’t want to be tested or treated. Camilla explains:
“An ethical approach to early intervention will have to walk a delicate balance between accepting and respecting individuals who might see their disorder as part of themselves and alleviating potential future distress and suffering.”
Camillia’s talk provides plenty of interesting concepts to think about as we go forward and provides a stark reminder that for all of our research, the thoughts and opinions of those suffering from mental illness must be at the forefront of all of our decisions.
Camillia Kong @NEUROSEC_Ox Early intervention research and clinical treatments should balance the goal of improving clinical outcomes with an ethos which tolerates and accepts how minds may deviate from ’normal' #MQScienceMeeting pic.twitter.com/cY5NndUvyz— The Mental Elf (@Mental_Elf) February 2, 2018
12:10 – What you lose on the swings: using randomised controlled trials to look at pathways to prevention;
Professor Paul Ramchandani (University of Cambridge, UK)
“We know that women who have high levels of stress during pregnancy are more likely to have anxiety and depression after they give birth," Paul Ramchandani
11:40 – How neuroscience is helping to motivate a preventative psychiatry approach to mental health: latent vulnerability and the impact of childhood maltreatment
Dr. Eamon McCrory (University College London, UK)
A quick break for some tea, coffee and snacks (the blueberry muffin my personal favourite) and we’re straight into today’s second symposium: ‘The case and challenges for early intervention and prevention’. Our first speaker on this topic is Eamon McCrory, who starts his talk by discussing the long-term impact that abuse and neglect can have on children’s mental health – often lasting for many years after the initial event. These long-term consequences are complex, with mental health problems, decreased attainment, decreased economic prosperity and poor physical health all associated with adverse experiences in early life.
Eamon describes how children can adapt to early chaotic, unpredictable or violent homes in ways that enable them survive and cope. However, the biological and psychological changes associated with these adaptations can come at a high price. Some children adapt to ‘fit’ atypical and disturbed environments in ways that are not helpful when they go out into the world to make friends, learn and develop as adults. Children with adaptations of this kind are referred to as possessing ‘latent vulnerability’, which may be associated with mental health problems in later life.
Despite this, not all children with a poor start in life end up with depression and some children are resilient to childhood trauma. Exactly why some children thrive whilst others struggle remains unknown.
So, what can be done to identify signs of latent vulnerability in infants? Eamon goes on to show brain imaging data that demonstrates altered neural activity in a group of children that had experienced neglect in their early years of life. The changes that Eamon and his team observed were similar to the changes seen in traumatised soldiers and can potentially be used to identify vulnerable children at risk of developing depression as they age.
Eamon explains how an increased understanding of latent vulnerability in children could be used in the future to identify children at the highest risk of developing mental illness. This will provide opportunities to provide preventative intervention that can offset the likelihood of mental health problems before they emerge – helping them get back on track with their lives.
Neurocognitive mechanisms such as overgeneral memory and altered threat processing mean maltreated children may be less able to elicit and sustain the social support they need to prevent future mental health problems. Eamon McCrroy #MQScienceMeeting— Lenny Neil (@LennyNeil) February 2, 2018
11:00 – Questions
We finish up the mechanisms and vulnerability of treatment symposium with a panel discussion as Thalia and Paul join Ian on stage.
Plenty of discussion, including questions on a phone app Thalia is hoping to develop, some clarification from Paul on the use of Methionine as a dietary supplement and a few points directed at Ian concerning the potential of histone serotonylation as a drug target.
When questioned on the reversibility of serotonin based histone modifications, Ian describes how the picture is currently unclear. This is an important point however, as if the process of serotonylation can be reversed, it may be possible to develop drugs that can interfere with this process and alleviate depressive symptoms. However, it is very hard to develop medications without a full and detailed understanding and Ian describes how he is currently unable to make a concrete statement on the subject.
A question from Professor Michael Owen next – how well do the stressful situations we develop in the lab recapitulate human traumas, like those associated with famine and war.
The panel acknowledges how difficult it is to study the brains of traumatised humans in the detail required for many of their studies. However, they do describe a number of efforts to investigate the human response to trauma, highlighting ongoing studies that analyse the blood of soldiers following exposure to conflict and the brains of firefighters that attended the 9/11 attacks in New York.
10:30 – Potential contributions of histone serotonylation to major depressive disorder and antidepressant actions
Dr. Ian Maze (Icahn School of Medicine, USA)
Ian Maze: Specific DNA bound proteins in human cells can be chemically modified by the "neurotransmitter” serotonin, leading to changes in the ways in which our genes are expressed in the brain; this process is perturbed in depression #MQScienceMeeting— The Mental Elf (@Mental_Elf) February 2, 2018
10:00 – Mechanisms of vulnerability and treatment.
Professor Thalia Eley (Kings College London, UK)
Next up is Thalia Eley, Professor of Developmental Behavioural Genetics at Kings College London. Thalia is a pioneer in the emerging field of therapygenetics and she starts her talk with an introduction to this exciting new discipline.
First, Thalia offers a simple yet thought provoking question to the audience - why do only 50% of people respond to psychological treatments for mental illness?
Thalia explains how therapygenetics aims to use genetic information to identify the people that are most likely to benefit from a given psychological treatment. Depression and anxiety are conditions of particular interest to Thalia’s research team and she uses statistical data to justify her interest in these two conditions:
“Anxiety and depression affect roughly one third of people, why that number is so high is poorly understood,” says Thalia. “Although MQ is doing a fantastic job at improving our understanding, we still need to do everything we can to understand how these conditions come about and how we should treat them.”
To illustrate the power of therapygenetics, Thalia discusses the results of a trial she recently conducted. First, her research team developed a genetic analysis that can be used to identify children that are particularly sensitive to environmental influences – things like peer group isolation or bullying for example.
With this test, Thalia was able to show that the children that are most sensitive to their environment do especially well when they are provided with one-to-one treatment with a therapist, but much less well when their treatment is provided by their parent with the help of a book. Without the genetic testing, it is impossible to predict which children will respond the best to each treatment.
In time, Thalia hopes that genetic scores can be used alongside more traditional information, such as illness severity and one-to-one interviews, to choose the treatment that is most likely to work.
09:30 – Effects of early life stress and nutrition on later brain plasticity and disease vulnerability
Dr. Paul Lucassen (University of Amsterdam, NL)
Fascinating mouse work by @LucassenPJ exploring associations between various prenatal and postnatal stresses. Whilst early stress isn’t good for neurogenesis, it does prepare pups to learn better in fear conditioning paradigm. Supports match-mismatch hypothesis @MQmentalhealth— Thalia Eley (@thaliaeley) February 2, 2018
Great talk by Paul Lucassen finding diet can reduce negative effects of early stress in mice at #MQScienceMeeting relevant to #MooDFOOD currently testing if diet prevents depression in adults perhaps extend to depressed mothers?— Edward Watkins (@ERWatkins2) February 2, 2018
09:15 – Welcome
Hello and welcome back to the second day of our live blog covering the 2018 MQ Mental Health Science Meeting. The auditorium is starting to fill up and we have a great list of speakers to look forward to, here is a list of today’s highlights.
09:30 – Paul Lucassen (University of Amsterdam, NL)
10:00 – Thalia Eley (Kings College London, UK)
10:30 – Ian Maze (Icahn School of Medicine, USA)
11:40 – Eamon McCrory (University College London, UK)
12:10 – Paul Ramchandani (University of Cambridge, UK)
12:40 – Camillia Kong (University of Oxford, UK)
14:30 – Celso Arango (Complutense University of Madrid, Spain)
15:15 – Panel Discussion, Wellbeing for all versus targeted interventions for the few
We’ll be keeping you updated throughout the day, remember to send in your tweets using the hashtag #MQScienceMeeting.
This session is really relevant for the @CommonsHealth & @CommonsEd inquiry into the Transforming CYP Mental Health Provision Green Paper, please share the outcome #MQScienceMeeting https://t.co/6MIUXBWXw1— Luciana Berger (@lucianaberger) February 2, 2018
Thursday 1st February 2018
16:30 – NIHR i4i Mental Health Challenge Award
15:45 – Keynote Two: Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: a randomized controlled trial
Professor Judy Garber (Vanderbilt University, USA)
Our final talk of the day comes from Judy Garber, Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee. Today Judy is presenting her findings from a recent trial investigating the effects of a cognitive-behaviour program (referred to herein as CBP) on children at high risk of developing depression.
As part of her trial, Judy selected over 300 13-17 year olds who were selected as they were deemed the most likely to develop depression. These teenagers were selected from four sites around the USA, before the group was randomised and half were provided with the CBP program whilst the other half proceeded with their usual care.
Judy Garber: why isn't cognitive behavioural prevention (CBP) even better (>20% still got depressed)? Many moderators of effect, including that CBP prevented depression *only* if parents were not depressed at baseline #MQScienceMeeting https://t.co/r8RizVb7nv— Camilla Nord (@camillalnord) February 1, 2018
So, how do you determine which children are at the highest risk of developing depression? For the purposes of her trial, Judy decided to use a relatively simple selection criteria by focusing on teenagers with parents that have been diagnosed with depression and teenagers that have had been affected by depression in the past. Children in the test group were provided with around six sessions of therapy every 8 weeks, before follow-up appointments were provided every six months.
Following their intervention, participants were then followed up and their depressive symptoms were determined. At 9 months (the end of the therapy program), the first differences could already be observed, with those that received the therapy less likely to have experienced a depressive episode.
What about the longer-term outcomes? A common concern associated with intervention based trials is that there may be an instant improvement but this could wear off over time. With Judy’s CBP approach, this doesn’t appear to be the case and 33 months after the treatment was delivered, an even bigger difference was observed between those that had received the targeted intervention and those that had not.
Interestingly, Judy realised at this point that the teenagers that responded the best to treatment were the ones with parents that weren’t actively depressed at the time of intervention. In contrast, if a high-risk teenager had a depressed parent at the time of therapy, they were much less likely to respond.
Judy finishes her talk with a question: Are we there yet, and if not, what’s next?
This intergenerational aspect touches on a recurring theme from today’s speakers, should we be treating parents as well as children to improve the wellbeing of the family as a whole? Many of the issues raised in Adrian Falkov’s earlier talk resonate with Judy’s findings today – I’m sure there will be plenty of lively discussion between the two of them over a drink at the poster session later!
Judy Garber: The cognitive-behaviour program is most effective for youth whose parents are not currently depressed, and youth who are low in anxiety and hopelessness #mqsciencemeeting pic.twitter.com/10Ych90cPr— The Mental Elf (@Mental_Elf) February 1, 2018
15:00 – Discussion
I was delighted to be a signatory on this comment last year calling out the scaremongering around teenage screen time! Good research still to come, but no evidence of causal negative effects so far! @sjblakemore #MQScienceMeeting https://t.co/s6mgw2YtlG— Kirstie Whitaker (@kirstie_j) February 1, 2018
14:30 – Youth Aware of Mental Health (YAM): a school based mental health promotion programme
Dr. Vladimir Carli (Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden)
Interventions in schools and for families can provide protection from mental health problems argues @vladimircarli and Adrian Falkov at our #MQScienceMeeting: https://t.co/b19bF96Hmk pic.twitter.com/Sw0KvbKMLH— MQ (@MQmentalhealth) February 1, 2018
14:00 – The Family Model – a brief family focussed intervention for parents with mental health problems and their children.
Dr. Adrian Falkov (Northshore Kidspace, Sydney, Australia)
Adrian Falkov’s talk will help inform/enhance participants knowledge & understanding of The Family Model; a tool showing promise as a brief intervention in clinical settings for improving communication btwn parents & children about their MH challenges #mqsciencemeeting— The Mental Elf (@Mental_Elf) February 1, 2018
13:30 – Adolescence: A sensitive period of brain development?
Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (University College London, UK)
Presentation on the influences on adolescent behaviour and risk taking by @sjblakemore. Important changes in grey matter volume as approaching adulthood#MQScienceMeeting @MQmentalhealth pic.twitter.com/LyGyCbLWs5— David Howard (@Used_For_Glue) February 1, 2018
I've heard @sjblakemore a bunch of time and I LOVE her description of adolescence as ending "at the age at which an individual attains a stable, independent role in society” Cue everyone in the #MQScienceMeeting audience to wonder if they've reached that milestone yet 😬— Kirstie Whitaker (@kirstie_j) February 1, 2018
12:35 – Lunchtime break
11:45 – Disambiguating neuroimaging markers of risk and resilience in bipolar disorder
Professor Sophia Frangou (Icahn School of Medicine, New York, USA)
Concluding the ‘Pathways to Health and Disease’ symposium is Sophia Frangou, who is talking about her research on resilience in Bipolar Disorder.
Interesting talk from Rebecca Elliot on unpicking the links between depression, childhood trauma, stress and cognitive deficits #mqsciencemeeting— Ellen Grimås (@EllenGrimas) February 1, 2018
Sophia begins by talking about the tendency of Bipolar Disorder to run in families – close relatives of people with the disorder are more likely to develop a similar condition themselves. However, the majority of these “high risk” individuals remain free of mental illness and Sophia set out to identify some of the factors that help these people to remain healthy.
Resilience isn't just absence of mental health problems-we need biomarkers for resilience not just risk. Rebecca Elliot@ #MQScienceMeeting— Lenny Neil (@LennyNeil) February 1, 2018
Sophia believes that there are a number of factors that could contribute towards resilience in relatives of people with Bipolar Disorder, both psychological (e.g. good coping skills) and social (e.g. supportive relationships). However, today Sophia focuses on the biological basis of resilience and reports a number of interesting findings her team have made by studying the brains of people with Bipolar Disorder and their families.
Using advanced imaging technology, Sophia could see that the brains of resilient relatives had some unexpected structural differences. Specifically, the cerebellum, a region of the brain involved in “balancing” mood and movement, was larger than average. She could also observe that the “default mode network”, a group of brain regions that are often described as the functional backbone of the brain, displayed a higher degree of activity in resilient individuals.
Sophia believes her findings show that the brain can adapt its structure and function in the face of heightened genetic risk for Bipolar Disorder. In the future, this line of research may also make it possible to find markers of disease and resilience.
Aaaaaah great #MikeDrop from @Frangougroup - we aren’t *failing* at finding biomarkers for psychiatric disorders we’re moving forwards on a VERY difficult question. Basic science is necessary even if we can’t apply our findings in the clinic just yet #MQScienceMeeting pic.twitter.com/ggXbM51PYb— Kirstie Whitaker (@kirstie_j) February 1, 2018
11:15 – Depression, neurocognition and childhood stress Professor Rebecca Elliott (The University of Manchester, UK)
Next up is Professor Rebecca Elliott who will be talking about depression. Rebecca’s research focuses on understanding the neurobiological basis of emotional, motivational and social processes, particularly in the context of mental illness.
Rebecca starts her talk by discussing emotions and the way that people respond to emotional situations in different ways. Rebecca discusses a series of studies she has been involved in that look at the responses of people to simple emotional stimuli, such as pictures of happy and sad faces or emotional words. Rebecca could show that healthy people display a bias towards “happy” stimuli, whilst those with a history of depression tend to respond more readily to “sad” words.
Rebecca introduces childhood trauma as a major risk factor associated with mental health problems. Could early life stress influence a persons ability to process emotions in later life? Rebecca’s research shows many promising correlations between stressful life events and emotional processing in later life, providing a new link between traumatic events and mental health.
“Childhood trauma is pretty ubiquitous risk factor across mental health problems, including substance problems, not just depression.” Rebecca Elliott.
10:45 – Prefrontal-hippocampal ontogeny in health and disease: a story of right communication
Professor Ileana Hanganu-Opatz (University Medical Centre, Hamburg, Germany)
Our next speaker is Professor Ileana Hanganu-Opatz who will be kicking off our first symposium on ‘Pathways to Health and Disease’.
Ileana’s research group studies the very early stages of brain development and hopes to understand how subtle changes in these crucial early stages can lead to mental health problems in later life.
Ileana introduces the notion of brain rhythms, synchronous pulses of electrical activity that occur when two regions of the brain interact with each other. In babies and young children, brain rhythms arise when a child is touched or hears sounds like music. Could these regular pulses be involved in the development of the brain?
I’ve been talking and thinking about #OpenScience and #DataScience a lot recently. It’s such a delight to be back in a neuroscience talk by @HanganuOpatzLab at #MQScienceMeeting. Animal models are freaking awesome! pic.twitter.com/bJC7lcmBdi— Kirstie Whitaker (@kirstie_j) February 1, 2018
For the rest of the talk, Ileana focuses on two specific areas of the brain - the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. She explains that in some people with mental illness, these two brain regions are unable to communicate with each other properly, which can lead to issues with memory and attention. Suspecting these communication issues start long before a person actually becomes unwell, Ileana and her research team set out to uncover exactly when in life these problems first occur.
Using mice with symptoms that mimic human mental illnesses, Ileana was able to show that disrupted brain rhythms and poor communication between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex occurred directly from birth. These communication issues are the first step towards cognitive problems in later life, providing new insights into the brain as it develops.
10:00 – Keynote One: Psychiatric Genetics: implications for prevention and early intervention.
Professor Sir Michael Owen (Cardiff University, UK)
Our first speaker is Professor Sir Michael Owen, Director of the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University. Michael has worked on the genetic basis of mental illnesses for over 20 years, receiving a knighthood in 2014 for his work in neuroscience and mental health.
Michael starts his talk with a simple question: why is genetics so important?
According to Michael, there are many advantages to studying a person’s genes and DNA. Genetics allow you to gain information on the brain, which is a complex and inaccessible organ. Many mental illnesses run in families, suggesting that genes may be playing an important role. Genetics has also identified many novel drug targets and increased our understanding of the underlying causes of mental health conditions.
Michael goes on to introduce a key concept in his talk - single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs. SNPs are small genetic changes that exist between different people in the population, and Michael describes how different versions of certain SNPs in a person’s DNA can be correlated with an increased risk of developing schizophrenia.
Sounds simple? Surely once you find a SNP you can predict whether or not a person is going to develop schizophrenia? According to Michael, it’s not quite as easy as this. As more and more data is produced, it is becoming increasingly apparent that thousands of SNPs affecting hundreds of genes act together to cause mental health conditions to develop. Moreover, many of the genes that have been associated with schizophrenia have also been linked to a variety of other mental health conditions, like depression or bipolar disorder.
“People talk about finding a simple genetic test for schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. I have a large collection of hats and I’ll eat them all if this happens any time soon!” says Michael.
Mental illnesses are vastly complex and increasing our understanding of the genetics of mental health poses an exciting challenge for the future of research.
09:55 – Welcome
There’s a lively buzz in the auditorium as over 200 researchers stream in for this morning’s first session. Dr Sophie Dix, MQ’s Director of Research, takes to the stage to open the meeting. Speaking to a packed auditorium, Sophie talks about the current state of mental health research.
“Its an exciting time for mental health research,” describes Sophie. “We have seen the public, politicians and celebrities getting behind the cause”
Jeremy Hall, who has been heavily involved in the organisation of this meeting, is next up. Jeremy introduces this year’s focus – risk and prevention. Echoing Sophie’s excitement at the current state of mental health research.
“We have at our hands many of the potential tool for prevention and intervention” explains Jeremy, before introducing our first speaker, Professor Sir Michael Owen.
Last updated: 14 February 2018
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