Big questions

Oxford’s newest research centre is looking at some big questions:

  • Could the internet bring psychological therapies to thousands more people currently waiting for treatment?
  • Could drugs normally used to treat heart disease help patients with bipolar disorder?
  • Is it possible to stave off dementia and keep the brain healthy through old age?

These are some of the questions being tackled by the new National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), which brings together Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Oxford to help translate innovations in the lab into real-life treatments for patients.

Winning bid

The centre won £12.8 million in funding from the NIHR, which works to establish the NHS as a centre of research excellence. The NIHR funds a number of biomedical medical research centres, but the new NIHR Oxford Health BRC is one of only two across the country dedicated to mental health and dementia.

The new centre, whose headquarter will be based at Oxford’s Warneford Hospital, will have three main research themes: precision psychological treatments, adult mental health and ageing and dementia.

Better access to psychological therapies

Professor Anke Ehlers from the Oxford University Department of Experimental Psychology leads the precision psychological treatment research theme at the new BRC. The group of scientists working on this theme are developing a new internet platform which will enable many more people to receive tried-and-tested psychological therapies on their computer or mobile phone.

“At the moment, there just aren’t enough therapists to provide treatment for the many people who might benefit from psychological therapies,” says Professor Ehlers. “Another problem that people have in accessing treatment is that the only free time they might have is outside of normal working hours.”

Once launched, the platform will allow people to log on and access therapies for conditions such as depression and anxiety and eating disorders, in their own time, with support from a therapist as needed. “This will allow therapists to treat many more patients,” says Professor Ehlers. The team will also track and assess the effectiveness of this kind of internet therapy, to make the treatments even better.

Targeted treatments

The adult mental health research theme is led by Oxford University Professor Paul Harrison, whose team is unpicking the causes and treatments of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. “We’re studying a group of drugs called calcium channel blockers, which are more usually used for heart diseases,” he says. “But it turns out that these drugs target a gene that we know is connected to bipolar disorder.”

Professor Harrison’s group, based at the Oxford University Department of Psychiatry, is now carrying out laboratory studies to find out what molecules in the brain these drugs might be interacting with. As part of the new BRC, trials will then be carried out in real-life patients to test whether calcium channel blockers are an effective treatment.

“Our hope is to find the next generation of drugs to treat bipolar disorder,” says Professor Harrison.

Ageing and dementia

The ageing and dementia theme is led by Professor Clare Mackay. Professor Mackay’s team, based at the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity (OHBA) at the Warneford Hospital, hopes to make brain imaging a routine part of assessing brain health in older adults.

“The collaborations we’re putting in place will help us find dementia treatments in future,” says Professor Mackay, who is also affiliated with the Department of Psychiatry within Oxford University. “But we’re also keen to offer tangible benefits to people who are approaching old age right now”.

Scientists working within the ageing and dementia research theme are attempting to understand the ‘neuroprotective’ effect of easy interventions such as more exercise and better sleep, which appear to prevent the slowing in mental function that usually accompanies aging. They’re also working to identify and test new drugs for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Leading cutting edge research

Professor John Geddes, who is Head of the Department of Psychiatry and Director of Oxford Health’s Research and Development department, and who will become Director of the NIHR Oxford Health BRC said: “Oxford University is already a world leader in basic research, but this new biomedical research centre will enable us to drive insights from our discovery science into innovative treatments.”