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Wellcome Trust Research Round-Up: 18/08/14

18 Aug, 2014

Our fortnightly round-up up of news from the Wellcome Trust research community…

Mind and body: link between immune system and mental health

The immune system may have a role to play in mental illness, suggests research from the University of Cambridge, published in JAMA Psychiatry last week.

With funding from the Trust, as well as the NIHR and the MRC, the team from Cambridge carried out the first ever longitudinal study to examine the link between inflammatory markers, such as the protein interleukin-6 (IL-6), in childhood and subsequent mental illness.

ALSPAC - Children of the 90sThey took blood samples from 4,500 individuals (from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, or Children of the 90s), at age 9 and followed up at age 18 to see if they had experienced episodes of depression or psychosis. They found that those participants whose levels of IL-6 were deemed ‘high’ when children were nearly twice as likely to have experienced such episodes later in life, than those whose levels were ‘low’.

Dr Golam Khandaker from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, who led the study, says: “Our immune system acts like a thermostat, turned down low most of the time, but cranked up when we have an infection. In some people, the thermostat is always set slightly higher, behaving as if they have a persistent low-level infection – these people appear to be at a higher risk of developing depression and psychosis.

It’s too early to say whether this association is causal, and we are carrying out additional studies to examine this association further.”

The study indicates that chronic physical illness such as coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes may share a common mechanism with mental illness. People with depression and schizophrenia are known to have a much higher risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, and elevated levels of IL-6 have previously been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The research also hints at interesting ways of potentially treating illnesses such as depression with anti-inflammatory drugs.

Momentary subjective well-being: an equation to predict happiness spectrum_by_JoeLercio

Researchers from University College London, including one of the team behind the Great Brain Experiment, have developed an equation to predict how happy people will say they are from moment to moment, based on recent events relating to rewards and expectations.

26 subjects completed a decision-making task where they either lost or gained money, while answering the question: ‘how happy are you right now?’

The participants’ neural activity was measured throughout using fMRI, and this data was used to develop one of the games in the Great Brain Experiment app, called ‘What makes me happy?’ Data from a subsequent 18,420 players found that the same equation could be used to predict their happiness, even though they were only winning points and not money.

Lead author of the study, Dr Robb Rutledge from the UCL Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and the new Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing, commented: “It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower…The new equation captures these different effects of expectations and allows happiness to be predicted based on the combined effects of many past events”.

PNAS equation

With the data from players of the smartphone app fitting the same equation as the smaller lab-based experiments, the team are optimistic about the app’s potential to produce robust results. “It demonstrates the tremendous value of this approach for studying human well-being on a large scale,” said Dr Rutledge.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was reported widely by outlets including the BBC and the Telegraph.

Toxic proteins implicated in brain diseases

B0005749 Human brain from aboveA specific genetic mutation may damage nerve cells in frontotemporal dementia and motor neurone disease, suggesting a potential new target for treating the two brain diseases.

Scientists at UCL and the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing used fruit flies to better understand the effects of the C9orf72 gene, which has been linked to both frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and motor neurone disease. A faulty version of the C9orf72 gene was recently shown to cause both diseases, and is thought to be responsible for roughly 8% of all cases of each in the UK.

The faulty gene contains a short section of genetic code that is repeated thousands of times. This repeated code results in extra molecules called RNA, as well as repeated fragments of protein, and the challenge has been to uncover whether the RNA or the protein – or both – may be harmful to nerve cells. By ‘cloning’ sections of DNA to test separately, the team were able to identify that toxic protein fragments are the main culprit in causing brain cell death in both diseases.

Dr Brian Dickie, Director of Research Development at the Motor Neurone Disease Association, said:

“Since the discovery of C9orf72 in 2011, researchers have been continually trying to understand how this gene causes both motor neurone disease and FTD. This detailed and elegant research has given us an important insight into how C9orf72 causes disease, which will guide the MND and FTD research communities in their efforts to develop new approaches to treatment.”

This work was funded by the Trust, alongside Alzheimer’s Research UK, the Motor Neurone Disease Association and the MRC. The paper is published in the journal Science.

In other news…

  • Researchers at the University of Reading have provided new understanding into how our brain processes information to change how we view the world. Using a simple 3D computer game (not un-like Pong) they found that the brain uses an internal simulation of the laws of physics to change its perception of slant in order to ‘score’ consistently. The Wellcome Trust and EPSRC funded study, Humans Use Predictive Kinematic Models to Calibrate Visual Cues to Three-Dimensional Surface Slant, is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
  • A study published in Nature Communications has found that new-born babies generate a genetic code to indicate whether or not a bacterial infection is present in the bloodstream; an infection distress signal. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have identified a signal consisting of 52 molecular characters specific to bacterial infection, likening it to a ‘biological tweet’.
  • Researchers from the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya and Imperial College have published the results from a pilot randomized controlled trial looking at the effects of Mesalazine in malnourished children. The study is available on BioMed Central and is part of their series on Medicine for Global Health.
  • Congratulations to the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology, Institute of Infection Immunity and Inflammation for being shortlisted in the Excellence in Communication category of the Glasgow Business Awards.
One Comment leave one →
  1. 19 Aug, 2014 9:15 am

    Reblogged this on bbnewsblog and commented:
    Neuroscientific news from Wellcome Trust Research:

    1) Mind and body: link between immune system and mental health

    2)Momentary subjective well-being: a mathematical equation to predict happiness

    3)Toxic proteins implicated in brain diseases

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