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Mental health research

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Mental illness places a huge burden on individuals, their families and society more widely. Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are estimated to affect approximately one in six people at any time in the UK with an estimated cost to the economy of £70-100 billion annually.

The MRC supports world-class mental health research, creating new opportunities to treat and prevent mental illness.

Our updated Strategy for Lifelong Mental Health Research, sets out how we will further accelerate our understanding of mental illness with the long-term aim of developing new treatments for the prevention of, and early interventions for, mental disorders.

Here we set out our priorities for mental health research and hear some examples of the ground-breaking research we continue to support, from funding researchers to study the role our genes play in mental health through to developing new digital technologies to help people to live with conditions as challenging as schizophrenia.

Professor Hugh Perry, Former Chair of the MRC’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Board, discusses the MRC’s strategy for lifelong mental health and wellbeing.

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Our Strategy for Lifelong Mental Health Research

Mental health and wellbeing has long been a key strand of the MRC’s Strategic Plan. In May 2010, the MRC published a comprehensive review of mental health research in the UK, on behalf of the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research (OSCHR). While the UK had a strong track record in mental health research, the MRC review identified strategic opportunities to build on this work.

Our Strategy for Lifelong Mental Health Research sets out how the MRC will ensure the UK is at the forefront of new discovery science in mental health. The MRC will:

  • prioritise mental health research, taking a holistic perspective from childhood throughout life
  • support discovery science through: building capability as a prelude to new, flagship investments; promoting research that cuts across multiple disciplines such as biomedical, psychological, social, physical and digital sciences; elucidating mechanisms and validating new treatment targets
  • transform mental health research by: taking stratified medicine approaches, ie identifying subgroups of individuals with distinct characteristics; making significant investments in global mental health to understand the causes and drivers of mental health; harnessing the data from population studies and the NHS; and by providing new opportunities for academic/industry engagement in mental health research

Expected outcomes and outputs:

  • enhanced understanding of the causes of mental illness
  • improved linkage of biological mechanism with social and environmental drivers of mental health and illness
  • routes to new interventions and preventative approaches
  • better diagnosis and treatment development through stratified and precision medicine
  • accelerated progress in the understanding of disorder mechanisms through better models and markers of disorder, and the use of big data and informatics
  • increased understanding of the importance of co-morbidity between disorders and the complex interactions between physical and mental health
  • enhanced capacity and capability of researchers

The MRC’s Delivery Plan for 2016-2020 highlights mental health and prevention as priority challenges. This plan states that the MRC “will enhance our investment in lifelong brain health, covering neurocognitive development and mental wellbeing, with special emphasis on the young where many lifelong conditions emerge”.

Building capacity

The need to engage early career researchers in mental health to build a community of researchers who are able to compete for funding at every level has been an important area highlighted in our strategy. Together with the Royal College of Psychiatrists we support MRC/Royal College of Psychiatrists Clinical Research Training Fellowships in Depression. This new initiative aims to increase the research training opportunities for academic psychiatrists and by partnering with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, we are increasing the visibility of such opportunities.

The 2013 Academy of Medical Sciences report ‘Strengthening academic psychiatry in the UK noted the MRC support for national summer schools at our Centre in Cardiff and as part of the PsySTAR: ‘Psychiatry: Scottish Training and Academic Research scheme as a way of improving mentorship and career advice.

Dr Sandra Bucci, Senior Lecturer and Clinical Psychologist at the University of Manchester, on the interactive App her team has developed to help people with psychosis manage their condition.

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Working together to tackle objectives

We work closely with other funders and with policy makers in this field. The MRC is a member of a national group of mental health research funders to take a strategic overview of mental health research and identify areas for special action. It comprises members from the government and charity sectors, e.g. Department of Health, Economic and Social Research Council, Medical Research Council, MQ, McPin Foundation and Wellcome Trust. The group will coordinate with other funders and lay/service user groups to consider the applicability of activity to patients and the public.

Cross-disciplinary mental health research agenda

The UK Research Councils – AHRC, BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC, MRC, NERC, STFC – collectively have an interest in building capacity and strengthening mental health research in the UK. The Cross-disciplinary mental health research agenda was published in 2017 and sets out research areas and cross-cutting themes that require an innovative, cross-disciplinary approach to accelerate progress and impact through novel and transformative research.

Framework for mental health research

The government published its Framework for Mental Health Research in 2017. MRC was represented on the steering group along with other public and charity funders of mental health research.

The Framework sets out ten recommendations to improve the impact of mental health research in the next decade, focusing on prevention and early intervention, increased patient and public engagement and user-led research, and stronger connections between physical and mental health research. The framework also points to harnessing advances in technology and broadening the skill base by encouraging the wider life sciences community to invest in mental health research.

Professor Mike Owen, Director of the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University, on the potential genetics can play in understanding the mechanisms behind mental disorders.

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MRC spending on mental health research

MRC investments in mental health research encompass a broad range of activities: research projects that directly address mental health questions; training and capacity building; and underpinning research projects, resources and facilities that support the field.

In 2015/16 the MRC spent just over £25m on research directly addressing mental health questions. Examples of research projects supported by MRC include stratified medicine research to address treatment resistance and therapeutic advances in schizophrenia, brain function and development in infants and toddlers to explore autism risk, and research at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit which aims to translate findings from basic science studies to refine existing clinical assessments and interventions.

In addition, the MRC also supports underpinning neuroscience and cognitive research such as attention and learning and resources for the mental health research community, including longitudinal cohorts, imaging facilities and brain banking resources.

MRC-funded research in other areas also makes an important contribution to mental health, including neurodegenerative disease, global health research and informatics.

Further information on MRC-funded research can be found on the RCUK Gateway to Research. In addition, news stories about MRC-funded research can be found on our website.

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Supporting population cohorts

The MRC invests £12.2m annually in the core funding for 22 population cohorts. These large scale studies of groups of individuals provide a wealth of longitudinal phenotypic, biological and social data for studying health and wellbeing throughout the life course. A number of these cohorts include mental health measures:

  • 11-16 and 16+ study
  • ALSPAC
  • Born in Bradford
  • CFAS
  • DASH
  • EPIC Norfolk
  • e-Risk
  • Hertfordshire cohort study
  • Lothian Birth Cohort 1936
  • Million Women Study
  • 1946 Birth Cohort
  • 1958 Birth Cohort
  • Newcastle 85+
  • Southampton Woman's Survey
  • TEDS
  • UK Biobank
  • West of Scotland Twenty-07 Study
  • The Whitehall Study
  • The Wirral cohort

A detailed MRC Strategic Review of the Largest UK Population Cohort Studies and our cohort directory provide useful information on the available cohorts and details on the measures collected and participant characteristics.

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