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Approved Research

Genetics and genetic epidemiology of brain-related traits and disorders, and their interplay with physical health

Principal Investigator: Dr Jonathan Coleman
Approved Research ID: 82087
Approval date: February 15th 2022

Lay summary

Mental illness is the main cause of disability in the UK and globally. Most people suffering from a mental illness do not get treated, and not everyone who receives treatment gets better. Part of the reason that some people develop mental illness while others do not is that there are differences between people in their DNA (known as genetic variants). Some genetic variants are more common in people suffering from mental illness than in people who are mentally well. These genetic variants do not cause mental illness independently, but seem to act together with features of the environment, like stress and traumatic events, to increase the risk of someone developing a mental illness. Similarly, differences in how much better people get after treatment for mental illness might also be related to genetic variants and to certain environmental features.

We will use information about mental illness and related traits in the UK Biobank to understand more about which genetic variants are more common in people with mental illness, and how they might work with environmental features to increase the risk of someone developing a mental illness. We will also study genetic variants that are more common in people who get better after treatment for mental illness compared to people who do not. We will also look at biological measures like biomarkers and metabolomics, and brain imaging, to assess their role in mental illness.  We will combine our results with results from other large studies to identify these variants of interest. We will also build mathematical models to try to understand how these variants act biologically to increase the chances of developing a mental illness, or make a person more likely to get better following treatment. Finally, we will use the rich data on environmental features provided by UK Biobank to understand how the way these variants work changes when people are in different environments. Ultimately, we aim to increase our understanding of how mental illness occurs, and so provide new information for designing new treatments. We hope that what we learn from this three-year project will improve the lives of those suffering from mental illness.

Scope extension:

We will extend our previous projects (particularly #16577, #18177, #27546), conducting studies of genetic and non-genetic (environmental) factors on brain-related phenotypes, including normative behaviour, psychiatric illness, and neurological degeneration and dysfunction. Combining genotypic, biomarker, imaging, and phenotypic data, we will generate predictive models of disorder subtypes, treatment response and side effects, comorbidities, and short- and long-term disease outcomes. Related traits of interest will include socioeconomic status, traumatic experiences, and cross-domain medical comorbidities: neurological (including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's), cognitive, autoimmune, cardiometabolic, sleep, and body shape.

Specific aims include:

- Genetic associations with different definitions and subtypes of psychiatric disorders, using primary healthcare data and mental health questionnaires.

- Metabolic measures (metabolomics, laboratory parameters and biomarkers) in psychiatric disorders, particularly examining genetic control of appetite regulation, dysregulated/disordered eating behaviour, physical activity, metabolism, and food intake (extending project #27546).

- Examining common and rare structural genetic variants of varying length in psychiatric disorders.

- Predicting drug response and side effects in primary healthcare data.

- Predicting the effectiveness and complications of talking therapies (psychotherapy, counselling) and alternative approaches (mindfulness, mediation).

- Effects on onset, course, recurrence, and potential recovery of psychiatric illnesses, and their overlap with physical diseases.

-  Examining genetic influences on brain structures, and their interplay with behaviours.

Extension, April 2022: We will combine the UK Biobank data with data from the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust (NIHR BRC Maudsley), in order to carry out more powerful analyses. Specifically, we will combine UK Biobank data with:

- The Genetic Links to Anxiety and Depression study (GLAD), a nationwide study of depression and anxiety. This study has recruited >42,000 participants with >26,000 DNA samples and is much younger than UK Biobank (median age 34). 

- The UK Eating Disorders Genetic Initiative (EDGI). This study is recruiting individuals with experience of an eating disorder.

- The COVID-19 Psychiatric and Neurological Genetics (COPING) study which recruited individuals during the pandemic from GLAD and EDGI as well as individuals from the NIHR BRC Maudsley without mental illness to act as controls.

- Psychiatrically well control subjects from the NIHR BRC Maudsley.

All of the NIHR BRC Maudsley data has been genotyped on the UK Biobank array, and has mental health phenotyping using an extended version of the UK Biobank mental health questionnaire. This makes the NIHR BRC Maudsley data uniquely harmonisable with UK Biobank