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My research progress and attending an international conference

At the end of last year PhD student Sophie Chick had a paper accepted for presentation at the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics in Florence. Mental Health Research UK was delighted to be able to financially support her attendance at the Congress. Sophie has written abut the experience in this blog and has also recorded a short video clip about her experience.

I have always been interested in the genetics of psychiatric disorders, which run in families but are inherited in an unpredictable way because they are influenced by many genetic factors. This genetic architecture poses an ongoing challenge to researchers, as well as the complexity of the underlying pathways and the degree of overlap between disorders. As a result, the causes of psychiatric disorders remain poorly understood, despite their acute impact on those affected and the need for more effective treatments. Carrying out my Master’s project in autism genetics inspired me to work towards understanding the genetic basis of these disorders, and I was delighted to accept this PhD studentship at Cardiff University in July 2021, funded by MHRUK and the Fieldrose Charitable Trust, to study the rare and common genetic factors which contribute to schizophrenia.

As part of my PhD I have access to a new sample of DNA sequences from 10,000 individuals with and without schizophrenia. These sequences can be compared in order to identify genetic factors which have a role in the development of schizophrenia. For my first PhD project, I combined this sample with existing samples to increase our ability to find these genetic factors, and identified five new genes which may play a role in schizophrenia. These genes have diverse biological functions and three also play a role in bipolar disorder or developmental disorders, supporting a shared genetic basis of neuropsychiatric disorders.

I was invited to present this work at the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics (WCPG) in Florence this year, generously supported by MHRUK. WCPG is the major annual conference for research in psychiatric genetics, and talks and posters presented at WCPG illuminate the next few years of published work. At this year’s conference, novel genetic associations were reported for ADHD and OCD among other disorders, providing insight into the underlying biology of these conditions and moving us closer towards hopefully developing novel treatments. Keeping up with these advances is important across psychiatric disorders, as methodological approaches and findings relevant for one disorder are often widely applicable. Many talks also demonstrated the increasing convergence of different types of genetic factors within the same genes, which is an exciting finding and which will inform later work within my PhD.

I was also able to benefit from attending talks about the translation of genetic findings into the clinic; new methodologies, resources and samples available to researchers; and discussions of the importance of diverse populations in psychiatric genetics studies, which was one of the themes of WCPG this year. I felt that this was a key topic to address, as it remains a prevailing issue affecting genetic research and must be tackled as a community to ensure that progress in psychiatric genetics benefits everyone. This year’s conference additionally included a number of speakers with lived experience of psychiatric disorders, which I felt was an exciting step towards patient-driven research. Furthermore, the advantage of attending an international conference in-person is that it facilitates communication and collaboration between like-minded researchers; when connecting with other early career researchers during poster sessions and networking events, I was inspired by the progress of other groups working in schizophrenia genetics, as well as in other areas of psychiatric genetics.

Unfortunately I did not have the chance to give my talk at the conference as I fell ill on the final day, and was terribly disappointed to lose out on the opportunity. However, I was extremely grateful that my PhD supervisor Professor James Walters stepped in to give the talk in my place, which meant that my research could still be presented at WCPG. Nonetheless, I feel that I benefitted hugely from attending WCPG in person, and look forward to applying the insights I gained to my own work.

Sophie Chick

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