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Annual Review 2015

The genetics of psychiatric disorders

Using fruit flies to help develop improved treatments for mental illness.

The Research

Fruit flies could hold the key to improved and tailored treatments for people with mental health conditions, thanks to research taking place at Bournemouth University.

A team led by BU’s Dr Kevin McGhee aims to uncover the function of particular genes in developing psychiatric disorders and mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.

They are using fruit flies to isolate and examine individual genes studies have previously indicated have a link with schizophrenia.

In lab-based examinations, the team will investigate what effect altering or ‘switching off’ these genes has on the flies’ nerve cells at different life stages, in the hope that this can then be applied to human psychiatric genetics.

This will lead to a greater understanding of the role these genes play in determining whether a person will be at an increased risk of developing certain conditions, and the impact of different biological and environmental factors.

The ultimate aim is to provide improved treatments for mental illness – tailored to individuals – with fewer undesirable side effects.

By opening up discussions around genetic and biological propensity for mental illness, it is also hoped that some of the guilt and stigma associated with such conditions will be reduced. 

The Academic

Dr Kevin McGhee, Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences 

My research looks at psychiatric genetics and the effects and functions of individual genes, but also the translational side of what it actually means for a person.

This includes looking at the impact of a certain genetic make-up on the probability of developing certain conditions, and being able to discuss concepts of risk with individuals, patients and their families.

If somebody has a mental illness, they don’t really understand what’s going on in the brain – so it’s important to try and understand these processes, and look at how the brain interacts with a range of biological and non-biological factors and their impact. Hopefully this will also help to reduce some of the guilt and stigma that can be associated with mental illness.

Our ultimate aim is to use this better understanding of the brain processes to lead to updated and improved treatments. Current treatments can have undesirable side effects so people might not want to take the medication.

If you can understand what’s going on in the body and tailor medicines to those problems individually, you can reduce the side effects and make it more likely that people will want to take the medication that can help effectively manage their illness.

The Student

Emma Hill, BSc (Hons) in Forensic Science 

My undergraduate dissertation research looked at one gene from a collection that is thought to be associated with schizophrenia, examining the effect of changes to the gene to evaluate its possible relationship with the condition.

Being part of this research has allowed me to further my understanding of genetics and the role they play in relation to our neurology and psychology. It also enabled me to learn an entirely new skill set in the practical care and management of fly stocks.

I was grateful for the opportunity to visit Manchester University’s fly facility with the project and train with Professor Andreas Prokop and his team.

I have enjoyed being involved in a research project that I could be hands on with and watch it progress, and be able to see every stage.

Being involved in this project has opened up my mind to the possibility of a career in functional genetics. 

The Impact

Dr David Crepaz-Keay, Head of Empowerment and Social Inclusion at the Mental Health Foundation 

The role of genetics in mental ill-health is both remarkably important and widely misunderstood. Bournemouth University’s ground-breaking work is helping to give a much more sophisticated understanding of both the opportunities and limitations of genetic approaches.

“This work has supported a move away from some of the unhelpful traditional approaches towards a more individually tailored and sensitive approach to treatments. This is as important for individuals, their families and friends as it is for clinicians, and the work being done to effectively communicate this new knowledge widely will not only support better treatments, services and support - including self-management and peer support - but should also help to deconstruct some of the stigma and discrimination associated with mental ill-health.