Completed PhD Scholarships
Congratulations and well done from all of us at Mental Health Research UK   


Mental Health Research UK are pleased to announce two more completed PhD Scholarships.

John Grace QC PhD Scholarship 2015 - University College London - The Life Course Epidemiology of Psychotic Symptoms in Schizophrenia and Other Psychoses: from environment to psychosis. ...Read More ... 

Jen Dykxhoorn’s research update for MHRUK’s Annual Report  August 2019

It has been a very exciting final year of my PhD at UCL. It has been a very busy year from a research perspective. I conducted a study on how neighbourhood migrant density affected psychosis risk in Sweden. I found evidence that as own-group migrant density increased, risk of non-affective psychosis (including schizophrenia) decreased. I presented this research at the International Federation for Psychiatric Epidemiology conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which generated much discussion and interest.

2018/2019 was also an exciting year to see outputs of my earlier PhD studies published in Psychological Medicine and Schizophrenia Research. I also co-wrote a chapter for the Oxford Textbook of Public Mental Health and an editorial for Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences.

The exciting output of this past year was the completion of my thesis! I successfully defended on May 20, 2019 and am thrilled to announce that I have completed my PhD. 

I am extremely grateful to Mental Health Research UK and their supporters for providing the funding for my PhD studentship, without which I would not have had the opportunity to study at UCL and further my development as a mental health researcher. Upon finishing my degree, I started a Senior Research Fellow post at UCL where I am working a NIHR-funded public mental health programme. I know the training I received during my PhD will serve me well in this and future roles in mental health research.




                                                 
                                                                                    DYKXHOORN, KIRKBRIDE - 2019 - EPIDEMIOLOGY AND PSYCHIATRIC SCIENCES.PDF 



John Grace QC PhD Scholarship 2014 - City University, London - Understanding and translating Working Memory Deficits in schizophrenia into treatment. ...Read More ...

PhD final report: Cristina Filannino

Department of Psychology – City, University of London, 2014-2018

Title of the thesis:Surround Suppression effects on Working Memory performance in the general population and in people with schizophrenia: behavioural and ERPs evidence”

During my PhD, I have investigated to what extent basic perceptual mechanisms affect visual working memory performance in people with schizophrenia and in the general population.

Visual Working memory (WM) is a cognitive ability that allows to retain and manipulate information for a short period of time. WM is fundamental for mental functions and it supports several everyday activities such as learning, reasoning and language comprehension. In fact, impairments in WM, which are established in clinical conditions such as schizophrenia, have been related to poor quality of life factors, such as work/education status. Despite a large number of studies investigating WM, its underlying mechanisms are still a matter of debate.  A number of landmark studies have shown that early visual areas are active during the maintenance of information in WM, which emphasizes the importance of low-level visual processes in higher-level cognition. However, few studies have examined the basic visual processes underlying encoding into WM.

The current proposal hypothesised that deficits in sensory gain control lead to abnormalities in forming the initial stimulus representation during WM. Sensory gain control is exerted through surround suppression (SS), a well-known phenomenon in which the response to a visual stimulus is diminished by the presence of neighbouring stimuli. In this project, SS has been measured using a visual illusion in which the contrast of a target is perceived as altered depending on the context in which it is embedded. Several studies have demonstrated that, compared to healthy controls, patients with schizophrenia are immune to this illusion as their perception do not appear to be altered by the surrounding context. This effect has been explained as a result of lack of inhibition in schizophrenia.

However, whether SS can impact not only the perception, but also the memory representations of visual stimuli has not been examined.

Therefore, in my PhD, I have investigated over three studies how individual variations in the SS sensitivity affect WM in typical participants (Experiment 1), in patients with schizophrenia (Experiment 2) and in interaction with attention (Experiment 3). Throughout all the experiments, I have used visual stimuli (circular gratings) that were peculiarly designed to trigger a weaker or stronger SS. Specifically, circular gratings were embedded in circular larger surrounds which were either vertically (parallel surround condition) or horizontally (orthogonal surround condition) oriented to the central target (Figure 1). According to previous literature, the parallel surround is meant to induce a stronger SS whereas the orthogonal surround a weaker SS.


Figure 1. Stimuli used throughout the tasks: small circular gratings (target) embedded in bigger surrounds. In the Parallel Condition (A) the orientation of the surround was equal to the target, in the Orthogonal Condition (B) the orientation of the surround was rotated of 90° compared to the target. Participants were asked to focus on the target. The contrast of the stimuli has been heightened for presentation purposes.

These stimuli were used in a contrast matching (CM) task and in an orientation discrimination (OD) task, in order to test the SS effect on contrast and orientation perception, respectively. Moreover, the same stimuli were used in a WM task aimed to test SS effects on WM performance. In the WM task, participants viewed one to three sequentially presented circular gratings with different orientations, surrounded by either orthogonal or parallel circular regions. They then judged whether the orientation of a subsequent probe (without a surround) matched any of the targets. In addition, during the WM task, Electroencephalography (EEG) data were recorded and event related potentials (ERPs) were analysed. EEG is a technique that allows to measure brain activity with a high temporal resolution. This allowed us to measure how cognitive and sensory processes evolve in time. ERPs have been used in this project to measure early encoding mechanisms during WM processing.

Experiment 1: In the CM task, 18 healthy participants confirmed that a central target grating appeared to have less contrast in the context of the parallel surround compared to the orthogonal surround condition. WM performance decreased with the increment of load. ERPs results showed that during WM encoding, posterior P2 amplitudes were significantly higher in the orthogonal compared to the parallel surround condition, suggesting that posterior P2 responds to SS mechanisms. With Experiment 1, we have confirmed that SS alters contrast perception and that SS mechanisms can be identified with P2 ERP component.

Experiment 2: We tested 19 patients with schizophrenia and 20 matched controls. At baseline, both populations were tested on two memory tests from the CANTAB battery. Patients performance was reduced compared to controls in both tests. Confirming previous studies, patients contrast perception was not affected by SS. In addition, the OD threshold was significantly higher in patients compared to controls and it negatively correlated with WM performance. This suggests that poor visual skills can be related to lower WM performance. Overall, WM accuracy was lower in patients compared to controls. However, in contrast to controls, WM accuracy was not affected by SS in patients. During encoding, posterior P2 amplitudes were modulated by SS only in controls but not in patients. With Experiment 2 we have confirmed that people with schizophrenia are immune to SS both at a perceptual and at a WM level. Moreover, ERPs results showed that SS processing in the cortex also seems to be altered in schizophrenia. 

Experiment 3: here we tested 20 participants on a modified version of the WM task in order to test whether SS interferes with attention. Here, a cue highlighted which item had to be memorised, over a list of three. Only behavioural data were collected. Stimuli cued in the last position were better remembered than the stimuli cued in the other positions but only for the parallel and not for the orthogonal surround. This seems to suggest that the focus of attention might be subjective to perceptual interference triggered by SS.

Overall, this project successfully confirmed SS effects on perceived contrast in typical participants and the lack of SS in patients with schizophrenia. In addition, the difference in surround conditions was reflected in P2 in typical participants (Exp 1) but not in patients (Exp 2), suggesting that encoding processes in schizophrenia might not occur in the same time window as controls. Moreover, these results showed that lower basic perceptual skills (such as OD) in schizophrenia are associated with decreased WM performance. This suggests that decreased basic perceptual abilities can negatively affect WM performance in SZ.

To conclude, the results of this project seems to highlight that basic sensory deficits in schizophrenia might act as a bottleneck which consequently limits cognitive functioning and, possibly, also response to cognitive behavioural interventions.  Future research should investigate the possibility of improving basic visual abilities and if that would ameliorate WM performance in SZ. Ultimately, this might also improve the quality of life of these patients.

I’m currently in the process of writing up the results of this project for a peer-reviewed scientific publication.

 CRISTINA FILANNINO_PHD THESIS

 

Mental Health Research UK are pleased to announce the third of our completed PhD Scholarships.
  
Jyothika's PhD Scholarship was the John Grace QC PhD Scholarship 2013 at University of Nottingham titled:- Investigation of abnormalities of glutamatergic neurotransmission and cortical function in schizophrenia using MRS at ultrahigh field (7T) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG).  Click on this link to read more ...Read More ...     
                                  

I am pleased to tell you that we have been awarded the 2019 Margaret Temple award for research into schizophrenia by the BMA Foundation for Medical Research. It's very exciting, my first ever research grant and first project as a Principal Investigator! We will be recruiting and scanning around 100 patients with schizophrenia with varying clinical symptoms in order to identify which patients will be best suited to a specific type of intervention. More details here: http://www.bmafoundationmr.org.uk/grant-winners-2019

It's not a huge amount (£63,950) but its so great that external reviewers and a panel thought that our work and ideas were important and worth pursuing. Also, they only award one of these each year so its amazing to receive it! The BMA will be hosting an awards ceremony in London in November where we (me and co-applicant) will receive the award certificates along with the winners in other categories.. :)

I wanted to share this success with you because the project directly builds on the work that I did during my PhD (the Molecular Psychiatry paper). I'm so grateful for the funding and support I received from MHRUK for my PhD. None of this would have been possible without that! :)

Thanks so much once again!

Jyothika's Final Report
I submitted my thesis titled ‘Multimodal Neuroimaging of the Salience Network in Schizophrenia’ in September 2017 and graduated with a PhD in Psychiatry from the University of Nottingham in July 2018.

As the title suggests, the main aim of this work was to examine the neurobiological basis of Salience Network dysfunction in patients with schizophrenia using different types of non-invasive brain imaging techniques. One of the main questions I have spent time investigating is whether certain neurochemicals involved in long-range communication (i.e. glutamate) and protection against neuroinflammation (glutathione) are affected in schizophrenia and whether are related to the level of symptoms or dysfunction experienced by patients. This work was published (finally!) this year in a really good journal (Molecular Psychiatry), a really nice graduation present! I am still working on other papers from the work I did during my PhD, and I hope these will be published over the next year. These relate to investigating abnormalities in the function and connectivity of the Salience Network.

Overall, this PhD has been a fantastic learning experience for me. I have realized that I truly enjoy research, and I am very keen on continuing my work in the field of mental health and neuroimaging research. I am currently working as a Research Fellow in the same department – Centre for Translational Neuroimaging, Division of Psychiatry, University of Nottingham. I am working on a few projects, some are directly related to the work I did during my PhD, but others relate to understanding the effects of cognitive and other types of interventions on the brain, which is quite exciting. This has given me the opportunity to develop more diverse sets of skills and work with different populations. We have recently applied for some funding to continue to do this type of research and I am going to start working on fellowship applications soon. Very much looking forward to the next stages of my research career!


Our second completed PhD Scholarship - Daniel McCartney has completed his PhD Scholarship at Edinburgh

Daniel's PhD Scholarship was the John Grace QC PhD Scholarship 2012 at University of Edinburgh titled: 'Investigating the molecular and cellular consequences of Disrupted in Schizophrenia 1 in patient-derived neural stem cells.' Click on this link to read more Read More.

Daniel's Final Report

I submitted my PhD thesis entitled “Investigating Genome-wide Methylomic and Transcriptomic Consequences of a Balanced t(1;11) Translocation Linked to Major Mental Illness” in September 2016 and successfully defended in February 2017.

My project was focused on a large Scottish family with a chromosomal mutation linked to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Using three types of biological samples from this family (blood-derived immortalised cell lines, whole blood and stem cell-derived brain cells), I examined global gene expression levels and a process called DNA methylation. Methylation is an alteration to DNA that can be caused by environmental influences (e.g. smoking, stress) and has been shown to be altered in numerous diseases including psychiatric disorders. Examination of blood-derived DNA from 41 family members revealed strong differences in DNA methylation at the genomic regions in which the above-mentioned chromosomal mutation occurred. This finding presented a potential biological mechanism for illness in the family members carrying this mutation. Towards the latter part of my PhD I was investigating DNA methylation in stem cell-derived neuronal material from six family members : three with the mutation and three without. Some differences were observed in individuals carrying the mutation but the effects were not as strong as those seen in blood. A reason for this may have been the small number of individuals profiled. To address this issue, work is ongoing to generate additional stem cell-derived neuronal samples from the family. Work is also ongoing to examine gene expression levels in these samples with an additional aim to investigate the relationship between DNA methylation and gene expression in the family. The output of my PhD is a first author paper [1] and a second in preparation, relating to the blood-based study of DNA methylation. The published paper describes a method to increase the reliability of data generated from a widely-used product for the detection of DNA methylation in various traits and disorders. The goal of this paper is to provide a useful resource to the research community.

As of October 2016 I have been working for an Edinburgh-based Genomics company, providing analytical services to commercial and academic groups. This has allowed me to apply the experience gained during my studies, assisting in multiple research projects related to a broad range of disorders.

Altered DNA methylation associated with a translocation linked to major mental illness

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41537-018-0047-7



Mental Health Research UK are pleased to announce the first of our completed PhD Scholarships.

Dr Bethan Davies has graduated from Nottingham University and is our first graduate. Below are photographs and a PDF of her thesis.



















Bethan and her supervisor Professor Cris Glazebrook 

Bethan's THESIS .PDF

Bethan's PhD Scholarship was the Mark Robinson PhD Scholarship 2011 at the University of Nottingham, titled: 'Development and evaluation of an online intervention for the treatment of depression in university students.' Click on this link to Read More ...

Bethan's Final Report

Young adulthood is a vulnerable period for the onset and development of depression, and is a common mental health problem experienced by university students. Depression can significantly impact and impair students’ academic performance, social relationships, and general well-being. However students often do not seek professional help for their mental health for many reasons, including stigma about mental health and help-seeking and preferences for self-reliance. Students are highly connected to internet-enabled technologies, and online interventions present a useful strategy for helping managing depression and can address many reasons why they do not seek professional help. Mental health literacy is an umbrella term reflecting an individual’s beliefs, knowledge and attitudes relating to mental health, which assist in recognition, management and prevention of mental health problems. The aim of this PhD was to develop an evidenced-based psycho-educational online intervention for promoting mental health literacy for depression (“depression literacy”) and management of depression in Nottingham-based university students.

This online intervention was informed by evidence from several research projects and through literature review of depression in university students, help-seeking theory for mental health problems, and the role of mental health literacy in helping improve management and help-seeking for depression.
  • Study One involved a systematic review and meta-analysis of evidence for computer- and web based interventions to improve common mental health problems in university student populations. 
  •  Study Two involved identifying the mental health needs of the intervention’s target population through a survey which profiled depressive and anxiety symptoms and related help-seeking behaviours with 758 local university students. Expanding on this, 
  • Study Three used involved interviews with students to explore their perceptions of changes in their mental well-being since entering university, factors affecting their mental well-being, and how they coped and managed their mental health within education. Findings from these two studies suggested friends were an important source of help. This led to: 
  • Study Four, which involved a survey exploring students’ helping actions to support a hypothetical friend experiencing depressive symptoms. Findings from these four studies contributed into the development of the online intervention, based on Rickwood et al.’s (2005) four-step process model of help-seeking. 
  • Study Five describes the development and brief testing of the online intervention - a website named “Managing Your Mood Online” (MYMO). This website consisted of ten sections reflecting different aspects of mental health literacy. This thesis demonstrates the first stage of a process to design an appropriate and relevant resource for Nottingham-based university students. 
After completing the PhD, my first appointment was as a Research Fellow in the NIHR MindTech Health Technology Co-Operative, based at the University of Nottingham. This group is a national centre focussing on the development, adoption and evaluation of new technologies for mental healthcare and dementia (www.mindtech.org.uk), and I am working within its Children and Young People’s Theme that focuses on the development and evaluation of digital technologies for children and young people’s mental health and well-being. I am also a member of the advisory board for Students Against Depression (www.studentsagainstdepression.org), a website developed and maintained by the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust (www.cwmt.org.uk).

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