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7 promising areas for mental health breakthrough

Big data, digital technology, genetics… the buzzwords of today could become the breakthroughs for the next generation facing mental illness. We asked seven scientists which areas they think have the biggest potential to transform how we treat and understand mental illness.

Some of the MQ-funded researchers we asked chose factors directly relating to their research areas - whilst others looked beyond their projects for 'the next big thing' in mental health research.

1. Big data

Claire Gillian, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin 

Claire Gillan

“I think big data – the new roles are going to data scientists that can work wonders on different issues in a company. I really think the opportunity for mental health hasn’t been taken quite yet, and it’s just beginning to take hold. The brain is really complicated and there are a lot of theories we can come up with and test in these very small studies.

“But at a certain point you might have to consider that maybe you’re not smart enough to come up with the right hypothesis for the right test. We can leverage the power of these sophisticated data analysis techniques on larger samples than ever before to produce insights that you find in one study and then independently validate. This enables you to move forward with a degree of confidence that you can’t get in small studies. I think that’s a great opportunity to find really robust insights for mental health.” 

Claire's MQ-funded project is creating an online tool which could predict the effectiveness of antidepressants.

Watch Claire talk about her project in this short video.

2. Understanding the links between mental and physical health

Jen Wild, Associate Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford

Jen Wild portrait

“I think that advances in biological science and better understanding the link between how our mental wellbeing affects our physical health, and how our physical health affects our mental wellbeing is a new area, and it’s a really exciting one.”

Jen's MQ-funded project looks at tackling PTSD in emergency workers.

Watch Jen talk about her project in this short video.

3. Global health

Ezra Susser, Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry at Columbia University

“There’s been a revolution to integrate mental health with global health – to start including mental health in global health programmes, both to treat people with particular disorders like schizophrenia but also to recognise mental health is an essential part of child health, that it’s an essential part of HIV, I could go on... It belongs in every domain in health, that’s changed an enormous amount in the past five years.

Ezra's research looks at the role of early life experience in health and disease throughout the life course, as well as global mental health. 

Watch Ezra talk about why mental health research is important in this short video. 

4. Genetics

Jean-Baptiste, lecturer in the department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology at University College London


“I will be a bit biased and choose my area: genetics. If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have been much more pessimistic because at the time we knew that genetics were really important in terms of mental health, but we couldn’t identify really precise genetic variables that were causing mental health issues because nothing was replicating, or working at all.

“It’s a great example of science where hundreds of researchers have been sharing data and now we can start to identify those genetics variants and start to replicate them. This is not only important for the genetics of mental health itself, but also knowing this genetic information we can start to trace pathways that lead to mental illness and that will give us targets that will improve interventions.”

Jean-Baptiste's MQ-funded project is investigating the link between mental and physical health.

Watch Jean-Baptiste talk about his project in this short video.

5. Digital technology

Sam Norton, lecturer in Research Methods and Statistics at King's College London 

Sam Norton

“Technology embeds clinical activities in people’s lives so they don’t have to go to a hospital to see a clinician. They can communicate indirectly by filling out questionnaires when they’re having symptoms, and clinicians can then use that to tailor their treatments and remotely monitor what’s going on with people.”

Sam's MQ-funded project focuses on integrating mental healthcare into arthritis treatment.

Watch Sam talk about his project in this short video. 

Jen Wild

“Advances in technology have radically improved our treatments. Initially when I started in this field it was always face-to-face treatments, now movements in this field are moving to online treatments that are still supported by a clinician, the use of technology to help people is incredible, and that’s only going to improve." 

6. Brain imaging

 Patrick Rothwell, Assistant Professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota

Patrick Rothwell

“There’s a revolution going on in brain imaging and our ability to look at dynamic changes in how different parts of the brain are communicating and that’s leading to a revolution in how we understand mental illness. It will enable us to evaluate if new treatments are reversing the underlying problem.”

Patrick's MQ-funded project  is examining whether strengthening the connections in the brain could lead to better treatments.

Watch Patrick talk about his project in this short video. 

7. Interdisciplinarity

Rory O’Connor

“As researchers, we’ve all been in our silos, arguably for decades, and that’s been important in the development of expertise. But I think the most successful mental health science is when we work together, not any one of us has the answer, it’s only through working together – across disciplines and involving people with lived experience – it’s absolutely fundamental. We all have expertise to contribute and the exciting part is the interdisciplinarity, looking at the different levels – from genetics, to psychology, to clinical factors and social factors. It’s only through combining different approaches that we will tackle the burden of mental health.”

Rory's MQ-funded project is looking at creating an effective suicide prevention intervention.

Watch Rory talk about his project in this short video. 

Last updated: 22 May 2017

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