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Nature and Nurture: neuroscience and mental health research on display

Cardiff University was last week delighted to visit the Royal Society in London and present ‘Nature and Nurture? Mining the human genome for mental health discoveries’, a showcase of world-leading neuroscience and mental health research, to a capacity crowd comprised of alumni, guests, and the wider public.

The challenge

Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Riordan introduced this research area as one that Cardiff University “was right to make a strategic priority,” a point of view reiterated by Professor Sir Mike Owen, Emeritus Director of Cardiff’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute (NMHRI).

Mental health accounts for five of the ten conditions listed on the Global Burden of Disease, he explained, affecting the whole lifecycle: neurodevelopmental disorders (in early age), psychosis and major affective disorders (adulthood) and neurodegenerative disorders (older age).

What was worse, “treatments in psychiatry have changed little over the last four decades”.

Mining the genome

“Now,” said Sir Mike, “we are making real progress.” At the core of that is Cardiff’s world-leading work into understanding genetics and genomics – the latter being all the material contained within a living organism. Having adopted a holistic approach, the University had already identified risk factors for schizophrenia, bipolar, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s.

Professor Jeremy Hall (Director, NMHRI) took to the lectern to emphasise that the brain is designed to be affected by environmental factors. “In some ways,” he said “it would be quite surprising if your twenties and thirties didn’t affect your mental health.”

The real problem with the brain was its inaccessibility, he said. We cannot yet pinpoint with real accuracy which genetic and genomic factors are at the heart of our mental health, and that is reflected in the mixed success of our remedies.

The Cardiff strategy

The brain’s hidden secrets are at least partially exposed by the power of the 3T Connectom MRI scanner (“equivalent to that of a nuclear submarine”) at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre. “Probably the best such facility in Europe,” said Professor Hall.

The Centre, opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 2016, is solving one of the traditional diagnostic difficulties of mental health: where a visit to a GP can diagnose a cough as being symptomatic of pneumonia and prescribe treatment accordingly, the causality of depression is adjudged to be: depression.

In gaining unprecedented access to the brain, Cardiff can make progress in diagnosing the underlying causes of the symptom and contribute to targeted treatments. “We are making progress on issues that had seemed impenetrable in my lifetime,” he said, citing developments in treating Rett syndrome.

The future of mental health

The Cardiff academics were joined for a Q&A by MQ Research Director Dr Sophie Dix (PhD 2001), who told of her pride in having graduated from an institution of increasingly global renown – and the fact that Cardiff is so heavily committed to an area of research that has historically been under-resourced. “Someone has to do this,” she said.

When asked for her one wish in the future direction of research, Dr Dix harked back to Sir Mike’s slide showing mental health issues at the core of the Global Burden of disease, and told of her desire to see it treated as such by every stakeholder in the medical research industry.

“My one wish would be parity,” she said. “Parity with other conditions on all levels: in funding, in research and in treatments.”

As those who joined us in London will attest, it’s a wish that Cardiff is working hard to turn into reality.