Bath and GW4 researchers awarded £4.3million for world-leading research into severe mental illness

4.3 million grant from UKRI and the Medical Research Council will advance understanding, diagnosis and treatment of severe mental illness

  • Published on Tuesday 27 February 2024
  • Last updated on Tuesday 27 February 2024

A pioneering new Mental Health Platform Research Hub, which will advance the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of severe mental illness has been awarded a £4.3million grant from UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The South Wales and South-West England (SW) Hub will bring together an interdisciplinary network of world-leading researchers, from the GW4 Alliance universities of Bath, Cardiff, Bristol, & Exeter, alongside Swansea University, Adferiad Recovery, Bipolar UK, and people with lived experience of severe mental illness, to accelerate impactful research into, and treatments for, severe mental conditions.

Severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and schizoaffective disorder affect approximately 3% of the UK’s population and cost the UK an estimated £29billion per year. They have been shown to reduce life expectancy by an average of 10-20 years, and place an enormous burden on patients, their carers, and wider society. Severe mental illnesses typically have a long-term impact on people’s ability to function, and at least 25% of people experience debilitating symptoms that do not respond to treatment.

Unlike other areas of medical science, there have been very limited advances in treatments for severe mental illnesses for the last fifty years, meaning that real-world outcomes and recovery rates have remained largely the same since the mid-twentieth century discoveries of antipsychotics and lithium.

The SW Hub team will look to change this situation and improve the lives of people with psychotic disorders, by combining and analysing data acquired at scale, with machine learning and clustering approaches, to advance knowledge of the causes behind the development of severe mental illnesses.

Research conducted at the Hub will also aim to improve the systems currently in place for the diagnosis of psychotic disorders which is currently based solely on descriptions of symptoms and behaviour. The team will develop more objective methods of diagnosis by using biopsychosocial measures such as genetics, cognitive tasks, brain imaging, markers in people’s blood, as well as assessments of their development and social and cultural background. These more precise diagnoses will enable the development of better targeted treatments, aiming to replicate advances made within cancer care treatment.

Professor James Walters, Director, Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University, and SW Principal Investigator, said: "The SW Hub will provide unrivalled opportunities for researchers across South Wales and the South West of England to conduct vital research into crucial areas of mental health science. Collaborating alongside Swansea University and the GW4 Alliance institutions, along with teams in Bipolar UK and Adferiad Recovery, will allow us to harness the collective expertise of our regions to advance our understanding of severe mental illness."

Dr Tom Lancaster, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, and SW project Co-Investigator said: "Through the SW Hub, we are committed to taking the initial, essential steps in leveraging big data to deepen our understanding of the distinct challenges faced by individual patients with severe mental illness. The University of Bath arm of the project will support this aim by identifying both shared and unique features of brain biology to improve the precision of their diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment monitoring".

In addition to advancing the diagnosis and treatment of severe mental illnesses, the SW team’s focus on analysing large-scale datasets, which incorporate biopsychosocial markers and stratifiers, has the potential for wider societal and economic impacts, including helping to address inequalities in service provision.

A core component of the work of the SW Hub will involve partnering with patient representative organisations, Adferiad Recovery and Bipolar UK, alongside working with a cohort of people with lived experience (PWLE) of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and schizoaffective disorder, to address the existing lack of diversity in consented research studies, and to ensure that the results of mental health research are representative and applicable to the whole population.

The GW4 Alliance has a critical mass of mental health researchers across its institutions, as demonstrated by the recently launched ’GW4 Mental Health Research Network’ - which brings together experts from across the Alliance to foster and develop research collaborations designed to address some of the most pressing mental health challenges facing today’s society.

The new SW Mental Health Platform Hub will provide a means to further bring together and harness this expertise, across the South Wales and South-West England regions. The Hub will also help to develop the next generation of mental health leaders, by involving and training Early & Mid-Career Researchers (EMCRs).

Dr Joanna Jenkinson, MBE, GW4 Alliance Director, said: "Mental health and mental illness are key areas of focus within GW4’s strategic priority of advancing health and wellbeing research and innovation for all. The development of the SW Hub presents a fantastic opportunity to bring together a vibrant, supportive and productive network of researchers, which harnesses the wealth of expertise that we have in mental health research across the GW4 Alliance, whilst also developing future mental health specialists. Working alongside key industry and charity partners, and our colleagues at Swansea University, we look forward to conducting world-leading research which will improve understanding of, and treatment for, severe mental illness."

The SW Hub will form part of a new £22.5m mental health platform, established by UKRI to address the particular challenges of severe mental illness. The platform will bring together researchers from a wide range of medical and non-medical disciplines and institutions.

It aims to connect them together to focus their efforts on generating an in-depth understanding of those who experience SMI to help discover new approaches for diagnosis, treatment and support.

This initiative is supported by funding from the Securing Better Health, Ageing and Wellbeing theme, one of five UKRI-wide initiatives aiming to harness the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system to tackle large-scale, complex challenges.