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Neuropsychiatric Genetics: past, present and future

31 October 2019

The MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University is a unique facility. For a decade, it has brought together world-leading researchers to investigate the major contributing factors behind mental health issues.

To mark ten years of pioneering contributions to public health at the Centre, we hosted a special research showcase: Rethinking Mental Illness. Here are six things we learned.

After four decades, there is potential for advances in treatment

Prior to recent advances, a lack of targeted research had led to prescribed treatments for a range of disorders remaining almost unchanged over nearly half a century.

It is only in the last few years that genetic research like that taking place at the University has facilitated a better understanding of the causes of neuropsychiatric illness and indicated new advances for the development of novel treatments, according to Professor Sir Michael Owen.

Sir Mike Owen speaking at the event

80% of mental health problems emerge before the age of 25

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Professor Anita Thapar CBE (MBBCh 1985, PhD 1995) shared that when she started to specialise in the early 1990s, mental health issues in young people were often disregarded.

Thanks to improvements in research, it is now acknowledged that four in five mental health conditions manifest before the age of 25. The result? Earlier diagnosis, and better outcomes.

Professor Anita Thapar CBE (MBBCh 1985, PhD 1995)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a genetic condition

Professor Thapar went on to explain that ADHD is an often-misunderstood condition.

First recognised in 1902, ADHD was only categorised as a neurodevelopmental disorder in 2010. Since then, Cardiff’s chromosomal analysis has shown up to 80% heritability. This provides a definitive rebuke to persistent myths that the condition is “made up” or stems from “bad parenting”.

Psychosis can reduce life expectancy by 20 years

Whilst many people who experience psychosis can recover, most cases will recur over a lifetime. Lifestyle factors associated with the condition and existing treatments (e.g. unhealthy diet, heavy smoking) can have a dramatic effect on life expectancy.

On average, a person with psychosis will die 15-20 years earlier than someone without the condition, said Professor Owen. This kind of statistic provides a huge impetus for the research taking place at the University.

Bigger sample sizes, better results

Professor James Walters (MSc 2005, PhD 2012) – who will take over from Professor Owen as director of the Centre – believes that future developments may result from simply scaling up our research.

He explained that by doubling a sample size in one study to 70,000 (less than a full capacity Principality Stadium), researchers at the University were able to identify new genetic risk factors for psychiatric disorders.

Professor James Walters (MSc 2005, PhD 2012)

The future is in ‘precision’ medicine

Professor Walters believes that by further increasing sample sizes, sharing data and progressions in biological understandings of genetic results, we can look to tailor medicine to people’s unique genetic make-up in the next ten years. This could lead to an end to the unpredictable outcomes and side-effects associated with ‘one-size-fits-all’ treatments.