Mental health

Key areas of focus

  • Imaging – using state-of-the-art brain imaging to understand structural and functional changes associated with mental health disorders
  • Immunology – pioneering studies of how inflammation and other immune processes cause mental health symptoms and can provide a new target for therapeutic development
  • Informatics – enabling access to anonymised health records in local NHS Trusts so we can link biomedical research to the real-life landscape of mental health disorders in large clinical populations

Mental health disorders, like depression, addiction and psychosis, are common and potentially severe. However, we still do not fully understand how psychological symptoms are related to changes in the brain and the body, and this knowledge gap has made it difficult to develop effective new medicines for patients with mental health disorders.

Working closely with Cambridgeshire & Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT), the Mental Health theme of the Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre is largely focused on understanding the links between mind, brain and body as a basis for development of new therapeutic interventions, both drugs and psychological treatments.

Brain imaging is a key technology for mental health research and we are fortunate that the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus has recently been equipped with advanced new scanners for ultra-high resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), funded by the MRC. The Mental Health theme of the BRC contributes infrastructural support for a specialist MRI physicist needed to optimise the performance of the new scanners, as well as support for the computing systems needed to store and analyse large volumes of imaging data. This is crucial to the success of several ongoing neuroimaging research programmes including a Wellcome Trust strategy award to map normal and abnormal development of the brain during adolescence and early adult life, which is the riskiest period of life for the emergence of mental health disorders.

Immunology is a relatively new area of interest for psychiatry but there is growing evidence that peripheral inflammation, measurable in venous blood samples, is causally linked to treatment-resistant depression, and that some first episodes of psychosis are related to auto-antibodies against glutamate (NMDA) receptors and ion channels. These and other areas of immuno-psychiatry represent a potentially important opportunity to develop a biomarker-driven approach to stratification of patients with a syndromal diagnosis (like depression) and to investigate immunological drugs as new treatment options for carefully selected patients with mental health symptoms. The BRC provides infrastructural support for immunological assay development, sample management and processing, and bioinformatics analysis. This is important to several ongoing research programmes including a Wellcome Trust strategy award in partnership with GSK, Janssen, Pfizer and Lundbeck; and an MRC-funded treatment trial of NMDA auto-antibody positive psychosis. 

Clinical informatics is our third key focus. We have developed and will continue to build IT systems that allow us to access and analyse anonymised electronic health records from CPFT and other NHS service providers in Cambridgeshire. This is infrastructurally important for supporting patient recruitment into experimental medicine studies and treatment trials as well as epidemiological and service development research based on large scale “real life” data on 100,000’s of patients. The BRC will support further development of our existing clinical data analytics capability, linking data from multiple service providers in Cambridgeshire to facilitate research at the interface between physical and mental health disorders, which are often treated by different NHS Trusts.