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Adult mental healthgeneticsschizophrenia

Meet the Researcher – Professor Sir Michael Owen

5 July 2019

Why did you choose to do research into mental health?

Three things happened to me when I was a medical student that influenced my choice of career.  First, I discovered during my intercalated BSc that I liked doing research; I enjoyed doing experiments and interpreting the results.  Second, I became interested in neuroscience and undertook a PhD in the middle of my medical studies. Third, I became fascinated by schizophrenia during my psychiatry block and appalled by our lack of understanding of the condition and the resulting lack of really effective treatments.     

Who inspired/inspires you?

One of the benefits of being a clinical academic working in medical research is that your patients and their families are a repeated and sustained source of inspiration. They remind you why you are doing what you are doing and put the inevitable frustrations of academic life into perspective. 

What are you currently working on

The main thing I am doing is working on the genetics of schizophrenia, which I have been doing for nearly 30 years now. I am particularly interested in what the genetic findings tell us about the biology of the condition and whether this can give insights into better treatments. I am also interested in the genetic overlap between different psychiatric conditions and trying to understand how this might help us better define different disorders and match new treatments to the right patients.

How does your research inform your clinical practice and vice versa?

I stopped clinical practice a few years ago. But I am pleased that we are now seeing the potential for findings in genetics to be applied clinically to help refine diagnoses and also to develop new treatments. These areas are likely to be a major focus of research in Cardiff University over the next 15 years.  

What changes have you seen in attitudes towards mental health during your career?

While we have a long way to go to eliminate the stigma that surrounds psychiatric conditions, there are signs that things are shifting. There is certainly more awareness that these conditions affect many people. They affect us not them. Also, it helps that people in the public eye are increasingly prepared to talk about their mental illnesses.  

What do you think the key challenges are for mental health?

There are loads of these. Perhaps the biggest of these is the lack of parity of esteem with physical disorders. Despite psychiatric conditions being so common, so complex and having negative impacts on so many people, both services and research are relatively poorly funded. I have been fortunate to be funded well by the Medical Research Council and The Wellcome Trust over many years but there are very few charities focusing on mental health research and public and other donations for mental health research are tiny. This is why all of us should be campaigning to raise awareness of the challenges and promise of mental health research.

The other major challenge is that these are complex conditions that reflect multiple causes (genetic, psychological and social) even within a single individual. This means that there is a need for research to be carried out at large scale. Our genetics research often includes many thousands of subjects and I think the same is going to have to apply to other types of research. This means that we are talking about the need to assemble teams with researchers with different skills and an increasing need to collaborate. This team science model is one we have developed over the years in the MRC Centre and the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute and I predict it is going to spread across mental health research. Big problems require big solutions.  

What advice would you give to people starting out in a career in mental health research?

The same advice I’d give anyone thinking of a research career. First, you’ve got to love the smell of the grease paint. You’ve got to enjoy the process, the environment and being surrounded by like-minded and eccentric colleagues. Second, you need a goal and to be inspired to seek it. This might be quite high level. In my case, I wanted to understand what causes schizophrenia and I trained in genetics so I could do this. Naturally, there will be many changes in course and blind alleys to follow but most journeys need a destination even if you never reach it! Third, you need to be lucky. But luck is not random! I often hear it said about a successful researcher that they just happened to be in the right place at the right time. This overlooks the fact that they probably put themselves in this position by choosing to train in one of the best labs and by choosing the right methods to tackle whatever problem they are working to solve.  Scientists like to think that we succeed by asking the right questions. This is partly true. But most scientific advances are driven by technology. So look around and identify what new technology is coming on stream and likely to play out over the next 10 years or so. For example in mental health, as well as genomics we have advances in Big Data, AI, digital technologies, brain imaging, stem cell models, functional genomics and genome editing that will allow us to answer a whole new set of interesting questions and hopefully get some useful and transformative answers. So despite the challenges I mentioned above this a time of great opportunity for mental health research.


1 comment
  1. michael mulcahy

    Dear Professor Owen, I was the penultimate person who annoyed you after your recent Darwinian lecture which I found hugely interesting. My comment referred only to your introduction which linked psychosis in ID with psychosis in schizophrenia et al.
    I believe there is a qualitative difference here and that lumping them together is not helpful.I was also making a political point.
    For example last year at the RSM Dr. Mark Caulfield was extolling the success of the genome project. He cited the case of a previously unknown case of maternal Phenylketonia having been discovered. I would argue that better trained physicians and better follow up of index cases at a public health level would have produced the same result at a lower cost.I wrote to him but never got a reply.!
    Your own scientific work is of a different dimension and I congratulate you on it.

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