Breaking new ground in mental health research

King’s research is changing the way we understand mental health. In this longer article we highlight just some of the revolutionary work being undertaken by the university and its health partners.

Boy looking lonely and depressed

Loneliness linked to major life setbacks for millennials, study says

New research from King’s shows that lonely young adults are more likely to experience mental health problems and more likely to be out of work than their peers.

Loneliness was common among young adults: the researchers found a quarter of study participants reported feeling lonely some of the time and approximately 7% reported feeling lonely often.

Lonely young adults were more than twice as likely to have mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, self-harm or attempted suicide and were more likely to have seen their GP or a counsellor for mental health problems in the past year. Lonelier young adults were also more likely to be out of work and education and were less confident about their career prospects.

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Adolescent boy

Young people with severe mental illness benefit from community treatment

For those young people who suffer from serious mental health problems, researchers from the Institute for Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust have shown that community treatment can reduce self-harm and prevent institutionalisation. The researchers found that intensive community care for adolescents with severe mental health disorders not only brought down the use of inpatient beds but reduced the likelihood of multiple episodes of self-harm among young people by 82 per cent and helped them return to school.

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Smiling man with medical practicioner

Genetic risk factors for depression

Depression is one of the most common mental health problems across all age groups. Co-led by King’s in the UK, the largest study to-date of genetic risk factors for major depression was reported on by news outlets worldwide. The study by the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium identified 44 genetic risk factors for depression, 30 of which were newly discovered.

‘With this study, depression genetics has advanced to the forefront of genetic discovery,’ says Dr Breen from the IOPPN. ‘The new genetic variants discovered have the potential to revitalise depression treatment by opening up avenues for the discovery of new and improved therapies.’

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Exercising decreases the chances of depression

Whilst some King’s researchers have been investigating the risk-factors for depression, others have been looking at prevention. Another major international study has discovered that physical activity can protect against the emergence of depression.

Co-author Dr Brendon Stubbs, Post-doctoral research physiotherapist at the IOPPN and Head of Physiotherapy, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, said, ‘Our robust analysis of over a quarter of a million people found consistent evidence that people who are more active are less likely to develop depression in the future.

‘We found that higher levels of physical activity were protective from future depression in children, adults and older adults, across every continent and after taking into account other important factors such as body mass index, smoking and physical health conditions.’

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Increasing the potential of UK Biobank for mental health research

The kinds of large-scale studies above are only possible because of the safe sharing of data and results across multiple institutions. UK biobank is a large national and international health data resource available to health researchers. King’s has been involved in helping with significant developments to its previously limited mental health data. Following 157,366 responses to an online mental health questionnaire developed by researchers from King’s, alongside collaborators from across the UK, it now has unparalleled potential for further biomedical research in mental health, dramatically expanding potential research into mental disorders.

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Rocket Schizophrenia

The computer simulations that could help schizophrenia sufferers

Whilst some mental health research requires large scale surveys of vast amounts of data, other studies rely on trying new approaches with small groups of people. Two different research projects at King’s show exciting early results how using computer simulations can help relieve the symptoms of schizophrenia sufferers.

King’s researchers used a computer game to teach people with schizophrenia how to control their verbal hallucinations. The game used a ‘neurofeedback’ technique, representing neural activity in the speech sensitive region of the patient’s brain, as a computerised space rocket on a screen for the patient. Over time, patients were able to develop mental strategies to control the space rocket. This technique could also be applied when experiencing verbal hallucinations in their daily lives.

In a separate study, King’s researchers trialled an experimental therapy which involves a face-to-face discussion between a person with schizophrenia and an avatar representing their auditory hallucination. The therapy may help reduce symptoms when provided alongside usual treatment.

Read more about neurofeedback computer simulation

Watch the video about avatar therapy


Brain scan

Standard brain scans could predict cognitive decline in Parkinson’s

Using current technology in novel ways can be a highly effective solution to difficult problems. Parkinson’s disease is one of the most common neurodegenerative disorders affecting one in 500 people, but not all patients suffer the same levels of decline in cognitive ability. King’s researchers have developed a method that uses widely available MRI scanning technology to potentially predict which Parkinson’s patients will experience cognitive decline, before they show any symptoms of memory problems. The method could prove a cheap and easy-to-implement tool for doctors.

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Green outdoor space

Exposure to trees, the sky and birdsong in cities beneficial for mental wellbeing

Finally, there are some things that we can all do to benefit our mental health. Whilst there is plenty of anecdotal evidence about the positive effects of getting out into nature on our well-being, there has been surprisingly little high-quality scientific research to date. Researchers at King’s have used smartphone-based technology to assess the relationship between nature in cities and momentary mental wellbeing in real time. They found that being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing. The beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in those individuals with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues.

You can help participate in ongoing research by downloading the app, Urban Mind.

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King’s is able to achieve so much in mental health research in part because of the generosity of donors. Discover how you can help support research at King’s.