by Milo Moran
Mental health is, and will continue to be, a widespread issue for our generation. One in four people worldwide will be affected by mental illness in their lifetime, and nearly one in three students report dealing with mental health issues.
In fact, 450 million people suffer from mental illness worldwide, making it one of the leading causes of disability. Many of the students who are reading this article will be suffering from some form of mental health issue. The recent major increase in mental illness diagnoses among young people is due in part to the increased stress of modern life, but also to the fact that awareness of these conditions is improving, and we are gradually de-stigmatising mental health topics.
There is growing evidence that illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia have some genetic cause, meaning some people are more likely to develop them than others. Learning more about this could provide exciting new windows into treatment.
Dr Nick Clifton, of the Cardiff Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute, has been working on such a project, studying the DNA of thousands of people in order to advance our understanding of the genetic causes behind mental illness, and how they interact with our environment to create mental illness. Dr Clifton is a fellow of the Changing Minds programme, which supports young researchers, and helps them pursue independent projects. Changing Minds is partnered with the Cardiff-based charity: The Waterloo Foundation, providing grant money, advanced skills training, and connections to industrial partners.
Dr Clifton has found proteins in the brain which are involved in brain development, but also closely linked to mental illness. Proteins are created by the body using its genetics, and so knowing more about the genes which affect brain development could help scientists decide when and which treatments would be most effective. Dr Clifton describes this as “an exciting project with discoveries which we hope will facilitate the design of new treatments for people suffering with psychiatric disorders.”
A successor programme to Changing Minds, Future Minds, is due to start in October, lasting six years and funded by a £650,000 grant from The Waterloo Foundation. The founder of the Waterloo Foundation, Professor Heather Stevens, said she believes Future Minds will “develop new treatments to help children and adults who live with these challenging conditions”. Hopefully there are new treatments and forms of support on the way for the millions around the world who live with mental health issues.