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New projects to tackle eating disorders and self-harm

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This Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re awarding £1.1 million of new funding for much-needed research into eating disorders and self-harm in young people.

Four new projects, led by scientists from the universities of Cardiff, Northumbria and Bristol, and King’s College London, will explore a range of pressing issues, including how rare genetic conditions contribute to eating disorders; the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with the transition to remote care and treatment for people with eating disorders; and harnessing the power of big data to predict the development of eating disorders and self-harm.

Before the pandemic, eating disorders and self-harm were already affecting increasing numbers of young people. Today the need for better prevention, diagnosis and treatment is even greater, with support services disrupted by the pandemic and many young people facing challenges with their mental health during lockdown.

Despite growing awareness around the importance of adolescent mental health, research into eating disorders and self-harm is still scarce and underfunded, relative to other areas of health. Combined with the increased pressure on these groups of young people during the pandemic, there is an urgent need for new research into how these devastating mental health problems develop and what can be done to tackle them.


Understanding how rare genetic conditions contribute to eating disorders

Dr Samuel Chawner will investigate two rare genetic conditions that can cause eating disorders in children and adolescents. His research, based at Cardiff University, will involve collaboration with Oslo University and the University of North Carolina, allowing access to leading international resources to understand the development of eating disorders.

Dr Chawner’s project will focus on two rare genetic conditions that are linked with extreme differences in body weight and abnormal eating behaviour. The genetic conditions are caused by DNA being deleted or duplicated on one of the chromosomes, known as ‘16p11.2 deletion syndrome’ and ‘16p11.2 duplication syndrome’. Individuals with 16p11.2 deletion syndrome are at high risk of obesity and eating binges, whereas patients with 16p11.2 duplication syndrome tend to be very underweight and at higher risk of anorexia. This project hopes to increase our knowledge of the development and early signs of eating disorders, and provide vital information to the families affected by these rare genetic conditions.

Remote healthcare for eating disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic


Dr Dawn Branley-Bell from Northumbria University is exploring what we can learn about the causes, prevention and future treatment of eating disorders following the rapid transition to remote care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent research by Dr Branley-Bell suggests that many individuals with eating disorders have experienced worsened symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, and reported concerns around the suitability of healthcare delivered remotely.

Dr Branley-Bell will work alongside people with lived experience of eating disorders, healthcare providers, eating disorder charities, technology designers and other experts in the field to identify why symptoms worsened during the pandemic and to explore the challenges experienced with remote treatment.

This research will help to improve our understanding of eating disorders, and will also inform future healthcare, technology design, guidance and policy.


Using ‘machine learning’ to predict the development of eating disorders

Dr Zuo Zhang from King’s College London is aiming to better understand the risk factors, causes, and interconnections between eating disorders, using machine learning.

Machine learning uses algorithms to look at lots of different factors at once and pick out the ones that best predict a given behaviour or disorder – in this instance, eating disorders.

Dr Zuo Zhang will interrogate large sets of data, from more than 2,000 adolescents, to identify risk factors and common characteristics of eating disorders, including measures of the brain, personalities, environment and genetics. He will then examine how accurately the risk factors can predict future symptoms, as well as investigating how the risk factors and symptoms interact with one another. This project hopes to uncover some of the causes of eating disorders, in order to help detect people at risk and aid earlier intervention.

Identifying predictors and patterns of self-harm thoughts and behaviours


To ensure young people who experience self-harm thoughts and behaviours (SHTB) get the help they need, it is crucial that researchers identify both ‘who’ is at risk, and also ‘when’ these thoughts and behaviours are most likely to happen. Although lots of risk factors for SHTB have been identified, we know little about how they change from day-to-day.

Dr Becky Mars from the University of Bristol will use a method called ‘Ecological Momentary Assessment’, which is like a digital diary, to look at how patterns of SHTB in young people change over short periods of time (hours/days/weeks). She will also identify factors that predict changes in these patterns, which could be psychological - like feeling trapped or feeling disconnected from other people, or physiological - like sleep problems or changes in heart rate.

Although self-harm is very common in young people, most do not seek help, making it difficult to provide support. Dr Mars will find out whether young people who self-harm are either (a) not visiting a GP or (b) visiting a GP for other reasons and not telling them about their self-harm. She will also look for factors that could help GPs to better identify young people who have self-harmed, using both traditional statistical methods and machine learning techniques.

These research projects, and our previous investments in eating disorders and self-harm research, have been made possible by a gift in Will from Catherine Evans. Find out more about how gifts in Wills help us to advance medical research and change people’s lives.

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