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Could inflammation help us find links between mental and physical illness?

Research awardData Science

Funding period2018 - 2020

InstitutionUniversity of Cambridge

LocationUnited Kingdom

Dr Golam Khandaker and Professor Peter Jones will use cutting edge statistics to test if inflammation can explain why people develop depression and heart disease together.

The project

It has been increasingly recognised that there is a link between mental and physical health. One example of this is depression and heart disease which, if someone has both, can worsen a person’s mental and physical symptoms and reduce life expectancy. 

But we still don’t know why these conditions commonly occur together. In recent years, researchers have begun to speculate that inflammation could be a key link.

Dr Golam Khandaker and Professor Peter Jones will put this idea to the test. And if they can prove it, this could help scientists to develop vital new treatments and prevention strategies for people living with both conditions.

The process

Golam and Peter will first analyse data from the UK Biobank, to look at the comorbidity between depression, depressive symptoms and heart disease in working-age adults. They will compare it to data from a birth cohort (ALSPAC) and a group of students (Ulster student cohort), to see how inflammation varies across a range of age groups with experience of both heart disease and depression.

They will also test blood samples to see if blood with high inflammation, and specific genetic variants related to inflammation, are associated with one or both of these conditions.

In the project’s final stage, the team will do causal inferential statistical analysis (Mendelian randomization) to test if these associations prove an underlying causal relationship between inflammation, depression and heart disease.

The potential

If Golam and Peter can prove that inflammation is linked to the development of depression and heart disease together, this could help clinicians to screen people to see if they’re at risk of developing depression and heart disease.

It could also help to open the way for new treatments. For example, inflammation can be reduced by regular physical exercise, which could decrease someone’s risk of developing depression and improve their physical health. Or, if people with depression have markers of inflammation in their blood, anti-inflammatory drugs could lead to vital new treatment options.

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