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10 October, 2019 - 12:29 By Kate Sweeney

Double boost for mental health research

A £35 million mental health research programme led by the MRC will explore what makes teenagers more or less likely to develop mental health problems and how we might intervene early.

With funding from the Government’s Strategic Priorities Fund the MRC will work with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation, in the largest single programmatic investment in mental health ever made by UK research councils.

It will use research expertise from a variety of disciplines to look at how our biology, environment and upbringing shape this critical development stage, and how we can better treat, manage and prevent mental health problems.

Adolescence is a time of rapid growth, learning and brain development, when our interactions with the world are changing hugely in the transition to adulthood. It is a crucial time when it comes to mental health. 

Professor Fiona Watt, executive chair for the Medical Research Council, said: “It’s clear that events in our teenage years have a major impact on lifelong mental health and wellbeing. The current statistics are stark – 75 per cent of mental health problems emerge by the age of 24. 

“Mental health problems are on the rise and suicide is a leading cause of death in young people.

“UK Research and Innovation is one of the top three funders of mental health research in the UK, and our researchers are making huge strides towards improving our understanding of mental health. This significant new investment will play a key role in unlocking the mysteries that surround how and why we develop mental health problems.”

Around one in eight children have a diagnosable mental health problem, with overall rates continuing to rise. This programme of research will study how mental health problems emerge, what makes people more susceptible or resilient than others and how we can intervene early, in schools, at a community level or through the use of technologies, to promote positive mental health and wellbeing.

Working with policy makers and people affected by these issues, including young people, parents and teachers, will be an important part of this programme, and a critical component to bringing about real-world changes from this research.

In a separate but massively significant initiative, Cambridge specialist Ieso Digital Health – a leader in internet-enabled cognitive behavioural therapy – has just launched Eight Billion Minds™. This is a new digital therapeutics program aiming to address the global and regional shortages of mental health therapists. 

Eight Billion Minds is building the next generation of mental healthcare based on analysis of high volume, real-world clinical data from Ieso’s IECBT platform, ThinkWell™, with a vision to make mental health treatments accessible for all. 

Combining practical knowledge of delivering differentiated clinical outcomes with the application of deep learning to hundreds of thousands of hours of therapy, the company has decoded what works in real-world clinical settings and plans to use new technology to distribute highly personalised therapies on a scale that is just not possible in 1:1 delivery.

Ieso’s real-world data set contains more than 200,000 therapy hours from its ThinkWell technology-enabled 1:1 care platform. Using deep learning models and NLP (natural language processing), Eight Billion Minds quantifies and analyses intervention-outcome associations to gain understanding of therapy-related language and what aspects of psychotherapy are most effective. 

This learning will be used to create clinically engaging and effective digital therapeutics tools for mental health sufferers where there are simply not enough therapists globally to meet demand. It will also work to improve engagement with, and the efficacy of, traditional therapy delivery. 

Eight Billion Minds already understands which components of therapy are clinically most effective and has built tools to help enable therapists to diagnose and focus on the elements that have been proven by Ieso to have the most impact on a patient’s chances of recovery.

Dr Andy Blackwell, group chief science and strategy officer for Ieso said: “Depression and anxiety impact millions of people from all walks of life, everywhere. 

“Emboldened by significant recent advances in science and engineering, we are launching Eight Billion Minds to catalyse development of a radical new generation of therapeutic solutions for mental health.”

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