The future of mental health research: immunology, imaging and informatics.
02 June 2016

Professor Bullmore and his team are focussing mental health research on three different platforms - immunology, imaging and informatics. Here he explains what that means:

“Immunology means we are trying to understand how the immune system is abnormal in people who have depression or psychosis. It may sound surprising that the immune system should be involved in mental health but in fact the links between depression and inflammation are very strong: for example, just think about how you felt last time you had flu," said Ed, who is also Professor of Psychiatry in the University of Cambridge.

"We are investigating the links between the immune system and mental health much more deeply and with a focus on developing new treatments for mental health that work by targeting the immune system.

“Imaging means we are using advanced brain scanning to study how the brain is related to mental health disorders. One of our main projects is focusing on brain development during adolescence. This is important because most mental health disorders appear for the first time during adolescence or early adult life. We think this must be related to the fact that the brain is actively developing and changing its organization during adolescence. We have already been able to show that normal adolescents have developmental changes in the hubs of their brain networks and this may be related to risk of schizophrenia. In future we will be able to strengthen the imaging research in mental health by accessing the powerful new scanners that have recently been installed in Cambridge.

“Informatics means using computers to handle large quantities of data more efficiently and informatively. A key focus is linking the results of lab and imaging research together with the clinical records of patients who are receiving mental health care at Cambridgeshire & Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust. This is an important step in making sure that research really makes a positive impact on patient outcomes but of course it needs to be done carefully to protect confidentiality. Working with the specialist Biomedical Research Centre for mental health in south London, we have set up a system that allows us to anonymise patient records so that they can be safely used for research studies.”

CPFT is doing lots of work looking at several different research strands of the mental health spectrum. 

Ed said: “One of the areas we’ve been looking at is psychosis. Professor Peter Jones and colleagues found that around five per cent of people who came to the psychiatric clinic for the first time had antibodies in their blood which bind to particular signalling proteins or neurotransmitters in the brain. They found that if the antibodies were removed from the blood the patients’ psychotic symptoms improved. We’re quite excited that this could be a potential new explanation for why some people suffer psychosis. We now have a treatment trial which is funded by the Medical Research Council to further investigate this."

 

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