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‘Launchpad’ grants in mental health research

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This Mental Health Awareness Week we’re excited to announce new funding for five outstanding scientists, who are all tackling mental health problems in areas of unmet need, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, depression, suicide, and epilepsy.

Mental health problems are common, affecting one in four people each year in England, and the number of people reporting these problems continues to rise. Addressing this growing burden of mental ill health is one of our longest-standing research priorities.

In the first round of awards from our new Launchpad Grants in Mental Health, we are specifically supporting research that aims to advance knowledge on how mental health problems emerge, in order to improve diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

These grants aim to bring together researchers with complementary areas of expertise, who are perhaps working in different fields. This funding will help to build their research networks and profile, acting as a launchpad to secure larger research funding in the future.

This research is only possible thanks to gifts in Wills from Anne Hutt, Ethal McManus, Catherine Evans and Dorothea Worthing.

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Joni Coleman Photo

Unravelling the genetics of depression - Dr Jonathan Coleman, King’s College London

Depression is a major cause of disability globally, affecting around 1 in 10 people in their lifetime.

Part of the reason why one person develops depression, and someone else does not, may be due to differences in their DNA. For researchers, there is a strong incentive to understand these genetic differences, in order to support the development of better treatments.

Dr Jonathan Coleman studies how genetic variants - bits of DNA that differ between people – make it more likely that a person develops depression.

Recent studies have found that variants in around 150 DNA regions are more common in people who develop depression than in people who do not. However, it is unclear which variants make people more likely to develop depression, or how they do so. Dr Coleman’s project seeks to answer these questions.

DNA is passed down from parent to child in sections, so variants close together on the DNA are usually inherited together. Dr Coleman will use this information, as well as information about DNA biology, to build mathematical models that rank variants by their likelihood of having a biological effect.

Dr Coleman said: “We hope to learn more about depression biology from our models, and to use similar models to study other mental illnesses in the future. Our research will help us better understand depression, and with this better understanding we can start to develop new treatments.”

Aja Murray

Using smartphones to address challenges faced by adolescents with ADHD - Dr Aja Murray, University of Edinburgh

Previous research by Dr Aja Murray and colleagues has shown that for young adults with high levels of ADHD symptoms, difficulty in regulating emotions may be a factor in the development of other mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

Difficulty engaging with peers is thought to be another challenge for adolescents with ADHD, but researchers know little about how this plays out in daily life.

There is currently a lack of effective support available for adolescents with ADHD, to help them develop skills to overcome these issues.

In Dr Murray’s new study, data will be collected through short smartphone surveys, completed by adolescents with and without ADHD, several times a day over a period of two weeks. The project will investigate how daily life experiences, such as trouble with regulating emotions, might lead to the development of other difficulties associated with ADHD symptoms, such as behaviour issues, anxiety, and depression.

Dr Murray said: “We want to gather information about the experiences of young adults, with and without ADHD, in the daily flow of their lives. Smartphones have been invaluable for capturing this information in other areas of mental health, but this approach hasn’t yet been utilised for adolescents with ADHD.

“Findings from our research will help us design better interventions, including smartphone-based interventions, for adolescents with ADHD.”

Faith Martin Photo

Tackling suicide in young people in Rwanda - Dr Faith Martin, Coventry University

Suicide in young people is a major concern around the world, yet scientific research in this area has mainly been done in high-income countries such as the UK, US, and Australia. As a result, the drivers of suicidal thoughts, suicidal behaviours, and self-harm are poorly understood in low-income countries.

Over 90 per cent of deaths by suicide among young people happen in less wealthy countries, including many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Dr Faith Martin’s new research will focus on Rwanda, where suicide rates in young people appear to be increasing. Her study will aim to understand the experiences of young Rwandans and their parents, as well as attitudes and responses to suicide.

Dr Martin said: “The 1994 genocide in Rwanda continues to affect mental health in the country, not least for parents who lived through this period. We want to understand more about this impact on parents, and in turn how this affects their children.”

Working in collaboration with researchers in Rwanda, Dr Martin will conduct interviews and focus group discussions in rural and urban areas, where they will talk to young people and parents, both unaffected and directly impacted by suicide in young people. They will also interview clinicians and community leaders to gain their insights.

Dr Martin added: “This work will help us understand suicide risk and protective factors for young people, as well as providing information about the impact on parents. Together, this will help with designing interventions to support young people and their parents, and training materials for psychologists and mental health nurses. We will share our findings in academic publications, videos, policy briefs, local meetings, and online conferences.”

Mike Fleming Photo

Developing a tool to predict co-existing neurodevelopmental conditions in children – Dr Michael Fleming, University of Glasgow

Research shows that children with neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, ADHD and learning difficulties, have worse health and educational outcomes than children without these conditions, particularly when they have more than one condition. Earlier diagnoses and support for them and their parents could improve these outcomes.

Using Scotland-wide health and education databases, Dr Michael Fleming and his team from the University of Glasgow aim to identify factors associated with co-existing neurodevelopmental conditions in childhood, and to develop a tool that predicts the likelihood of children developing more than one condition.

This tool will highlight children at high risk of developing co-existing neurodevelopmental disorders, so schools and healthcare providers can fast-track them for full assessment at an early age, improving the child’s longer term health outcomes, learning, and development.

Dr Fleming said: “Developing this new tool will help to ensure earlier diagnoses and support for children and their parents. Ultimately, we hope this will have a positive impact on their wider health and educational outcomes.”

Umesh Photo

Understanding the brain networks of anhedonia in epilepsy - Dr Umesh Vivekananda, University College London

Anhedonia, a loss of pleasure or motivation, occurs in one-third of people with depression. Equally, up to half of people with epilepsy that is resistant to medication experience depression, with anhedonia being a common symptom, impacting quality of life and seizure control.

Prior research in animals has highlighted changes in brain circuits that are associated with anhedonia, however it is uncertain how this research translates to humans.

Using this launchpad grant, Dr Umesh Vivekananda from University College London will use state-of-art analytical tools to measure brain activity in patients with epilepsy and anhedonia.

Dr Umesh Vivekananda said: “This research will significantly broaden our understanding of the neural basis of anhedonia, to inform future treatments aimed at managing this crucial component of depression.”