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5 findings providing new answers in mental health research

November 28, 2018

~ Sharing from our colleagues at MQ – Transforming mental health through research ~

Decades of research into physical illnesses like cancer and HIV have shown us that science has the power to truly transform lives. Now is the time for mental health.

At MQ, we’re proud to be funding some of the world’s leading researchers, to find the answers and treatments people desperately need. Below, we share 5 recent findings from MQ-funded researchers which could transform mental health – shifting us towards a world where we approach mental illness with more clarity, more certainty and more compassion.

1. Prenatal exposure to folic acid could reduce risk of psychosis

Taking folic acid around the time of conception is known to reduce risk of life-threatening conditions of the nervous system, like spina bifida. But there’s growing evidence that folic acid may also have protective benefits for mental illness. Joshua Roffman and his team at Harvard University set out to explore if an increase in consumption of folic acid during pregnancy is linked with changes in children’s brain development – changes that might reduce incidences of mental illness.

Joshua found that prenatal exposure to folic acid does alter brain development – in ways that appear to protect against the development of psychosis. His study adds critical biological evidence to the case to prove folic acid’s potential role in preventing severe mental illness. The potential of this is huge – just recently, the UK Government announced that all flour is to be fortified with folic acid in order to reduce the number of babies born in the UK with serious physical defects. The case for fortification to improve mental health outcomes could lead to further significant policy changes.

2. Low levels of oestrogen affects psychological treatments for women with anxiety

Women are twice as likely to have anxiety compared to men, but little is known about why. And while psychological treatments work for many women, they don’t work for everyone. Bronwyn Graham and her team at University of New South Wales in Australia set out to investigate the connection between hormones and anxiety – and if hormones might be affecting the way people respond to treatment.

Bronwyn found that women with anxiety, who had low levels of the hormone oestrogen, were less likely to get better – and stay better – following psychological treatment. This means that if we can schedule treatment at optimal times when oestrogen is highest (in the second week of the menstrual cycle), it could end up being more effective. Bronwyn’s project could improve the lives of thousands of women with anxiety – and paves the way for looking into the impact that different types of hormonal contraception could have on psychological treatments.

3. Lab-grown brain tissue has shed light on how mental illnesses develop

Our understanding of how the brain develops is still limited – impacting our knowledge of how neurological and mental illnesses begin. Sergiu Pasca and his team at Stanford assembled – for the first time – ‘in a dish’ pea-sized 3D brain circuits that develop and interact in a similar way to the human brain.

This ground-breaking work enabled them to study individual cells – and their growth into fully-functioning circuits – in detail we’ve never been able to see before. Previously we could only study individual cells in a test and the only way to study circuits was to use rodents’ brains. As a result, they can now begin to answer fundamental questions about the formation of the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain responsible for our most advanced functions and linked to mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Sergiu’s model can also be replicated to build different brain circuits, to help improve our understanding of other conditions associated with the brain and inform vital treatments.

4. Bullying is proven to have a direct impact on mental health

1 in 5 young people in the UK say they’ve recently been bullied – and we know that those who are bullied are more likely to experience serious mental health problems, including self-harm. Jean-Baptiste Pingault at University College London investigated the direct impact of bullying on mental health.

He found robust evidence that bullying causes many mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, years later. Jean-Baptiste’s results also revealed that, for some young people, these detrimental mental health effects decreased over time – a hopeful discovery which could show that children exposed to bullying develop resilience. This is further evidence that we need to take the mental health impacts of bullying seriously and intervene as early as possible to tackle the issue.

5. Facing our fears can help us overcome traumatic memories

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is difficult to treat – memories of the traumatic events can be so deeply ingrained that they can have a significant impact on someone’s day-to-day life. Johannes Gräff set out to identify what happens in the brain during exposure therapy to see if this method is the most effective way to reduce the severity of the traumatic memories.

Johannes’ study uncovered the group of cells vital for storing and reducing traumatic memories – offering hope for testing new interventions. His results support the notion that re-writing memories – by facing fears – could be the most successful way to overcome a trauma, rather than trying to rationalise or suppress them. By pinpointing the cells that are important for reducing traumatic memories, Johannes has opened the gates to test new, more refined interventions for PTSD.

Our Director of Research, Sophie Dix, said: “All of these findings demonstrate the power that research has to make significant changes to the lives of people struggling with mental illness. Each project has opened doors to much-needed advances in our understanding of mental illness and the potential for more targeted interventions – and possibly prevention – in the future. In order to make more breakthroughs we need everyone who cares about mental health to swear to help.”

At MQ we know that no single idea will tackle mental illness alone. That’s why we’re committed to supporting projects like these across all the sciences, building a 360-degree understanding of mental illness so we can have the greatest chance of transforming lives.

By Hannah Myerson |
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