Scientists unite to solve mystery of mental illness and neurological conditions

Some of the UK's leading neuroscientists, stem cell biologists, psychologists and psychiatrists are uniting to break down scientific barriers in a bid to solve the mystery of mental illness and neurological conditions.

A team from Cardiff University's Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute have secured a £5.2 million Wellcome Trust Strategic Award to combine the latest findings in genetics, brain imaging, animal models and stem cells.

Taking a novel approach that combines human, animal and cellular experiments for the first time, the team hope to gain new understanding of how specific genetic risk factors impact the brain and behaviour.

Professor Mike Owen, who is leading the programme at Cardiff University, explains: "Recent findings in genetics have advanced our understanding of mental illness and major psychiatric disorders in important new ways. We now know that that disorders like schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder share some of the same genetic risk factors as autism and intellectual disability.

"Genes also point to an important role in these disorders for abnormalities in synapses – the structures through which brain cells communicate with each other. The next step in understanding these disorders is to take the genetic findings and trace them into how the brain functions and influences behaviour by harnessing recent advances in neurosciences and stem cell research."

Professor Lawrence Wilkinson, whose research focuses on how genetic and epigenetic mechanisms influence the way the brain functions, said: "What excites me about this new approach is the way it is going to allow us to examine the biology of these complex brain disorders at multiple levels, starting with genetic changes in people that make them more vulnerable to disease, and then getting to grips – using animal models and brain cells grown in the test-tube – with exactly how these genetic changes lead to a brain not working properly.

"We will then translate these findings back to patients so we can clear the fog that surrounds our current understanding of mental disorders and find better ways of fixing them."

Professor Adrian Harwood, who leads research into the emerging field of cellular pharmacology, which examines the interaction of psychotropic drugs in cells, added: "Researchers are desperate for clinically relevant cell systems to study disease mechanisms and develop new drug therapies. This offers an unprecedented opportunity to close this gap and investigate this major human condition at the cell and molecular level."

By working across and integrating these different research areas, the team hope their work will offer new understanding and eventually lead to new treatments for psychiatric disorders and other neurological conditions.

Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said: "Although mental health disorders affect as many as one in four people, we’ve made relatively little progress in our understanding of these diseases and how to treat them in several decades.

"This project will help us to really get to grips with the genetic and biological problems underlying the conditions."