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Approved Research

Exploring biopsychosocial risk factors and interactions in health, well-being and illness

Principal Investigator: Dr Mervyn Thomas
Approved Research ID: 85881
Approval date: April 26th 2022

Lay summary

We know that there are many risk factors for mental health, some of which may arise from early "adverse events" (negative occurrences, which might include deprivation, abuse or trauma), chronic illness, or neurological changes occurring later in life as we age or develop conditions such as dementia. However, most projects exploring these difficulties have studied a small number of people or in very specific situations, which makes it difficult to extend those findings to wider populations. Other projects have used a very restricted range of research methods or "outcome measures" (the tools we use to assess well-being, like questionnaires). This makes it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions, well-founded in evidence.

In our proposed project, we aim to deepen our understanding of associations between mental well-being factors (such as mental health and problems with thinking or "cognition"), genetic makeup, key biopsychosocial variables like changes in physical health, development of neurological conditions like dementia, and early adverse events like trauma and abuse. This will allow us to identify risk and resilience factors for psychological functioning, physical health and well-being. For example, the nature of mental health (e.g., depression, subjective well-being) will be explored by examining the independent and interactive effects of key social (isolation, support, connectedness) and physical (self-report, medical diagnoses, and performance-based) variables. In addition, we will consider the experiences and outcomes of people who experienced early adverse events such as child abuse, and examine potential protective factors such as higher education or social support. As a third example, a developing literature associates poor cardiovascular health and poor sleep with cognitive difficulties in ageing and neurological conditions, but this is yet to be explored in a large dataset. Finally, we will also explore the associations between genetic makeup, physical health and mental well-being.

Over three years, we will conduct a planned series of data analyses to achieve a complete understanding of the factors associated with cognitive and mental health, as well as the consequences of adverse life events. This will lead to the publication of multiple academic papers. We will also seek to disseminate our findings through non-academic routes to maximise engagement of clinicians (e.g., medical professionals, practitioner psychologists), third sector organisations and individuals affected by difficulties with mental well-being and cognition. This ensures the maximum meaningful impact of our findings, including potential contributions to designing mental and physical health interventions and programs to support those coping with adversity.

Scope extension:

The overarching aim of this project is to improve our understanding of the interactions between biological factors, cognitive and psychological functioning, and adjustment in healthy populations and people with long-term health problems. We will achieve this by exploring associations between a wide range of risk and resilience factors and its link to physical and mental health. We will address the following four research questions:

  1. What are the relationships between biological factors (e.g. genotype), physical health markers (e.g., imaging biomarkers, cardiovascular well-being, sleep, diet) and cognitive / emotional well-being factors, which might act as risk or resilience factors in healthy ageing and neurological conditions?
  2. What are the independent and interactive effects of physical health (e.g., self-report, medical diagnoses, and performance-based measures) and social context (e.g., social support, loneliness, isolation) for mental health outcomes (including psychiatric diagnoses and measures of subjective well-being)?
  3. What are the social (e.g., employment outcomes, lifestyle factors), cognitive (e.g., fluid intelligence, executive function) and physical (e.g., self-report / medical diagnoses) health outcomes of adverse life events (e.g., trauma, abuse)?
  4. Can we identify surrogate markers (genotypic and phenotypic) for health and well-being?

Additional questions:

  1. What is the relationship between image derived phenotypes from MRI, genotype and systemic health?
  2. What is the relationship between image derived phenotypes from Optical coherence tomography and fundus imaging, genotype and systemic health?