April 1 marks the launch of the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), one of the newest additions to the stable of NIHR BRCs that are funded to transform scientific breakthroughs into cutting-edge treatments for patients.
This partnership between Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Oxford will form the second NIHR BRC (after the NIHR Maudsley BRC) to focus on mental health disorders and dementia. Previously the NIHR has funded Biomedical Research Units with mental health and dementia specialties and the BRC will add to the body of growing research in these fields.
This is also the second NIHR BRC in Oxford: the existing NIHR Oxford BRC addresses 16 research disease-focused themes, including obesity, respiratory, gastroenterology, dementia, cardiovascular, infection/antimicrobial resistance, deafness, and musculoskeletal disorders.
Addressing a global issue
The opening of the NIHR Oxford Health BRC follows the announcement of almost a billion pounds of additional investment for mental health services across the country.
This investment is urgently needed. According to a World Economic Forum report, global costs for mental illnesses are likely to be over six trillion dollars by 2030. Similarly, the economic impact of dementia in the UK alone is £26.3 billion.
Mental health and dementia patients deserve the same research excellence as in other areas of healthcare, and we aim to bring the best science to the complex problems mental health disorders and dementia present. We want to transform findings in our labs to new treatments and biomarkers to generate innovation in experimental medicine and the provision of precision care.
And we plan to do all of this by making use of the world class imaging, informatics and research facilities in Oxford, whilst involving our patients every step of the way
We also want to harness digital and new technologies so that our solutions can have global reach.
Asking the big questions
We’ll be asking some big questions, such as whether the internet can bring psychological therapies to thousands more people currently waiting for treatment, and if it is possible to stave off dementia and keep the brain healthy through old age.
Our research is divided into three main themes, focusing on supporting mental health in adults, older adults and dementia and precision psychological therapies. We have a further three ‘cross-cutting’ themes which support all three of our main themes: experimental medicine, informatics and digital health, and neuroimaging and cognitive science.
Amongst many other projects, our adult mental health research team is working to unpick the causes of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with the hope of finding the next generation of treatments. Trials from the new BRC will test whether calcium channel blockers ( usually used to treat heart disease) could be effective for treatment of bipolar disorder.
A similar focus on changing how patients are treated and diagnosed drives our other themes too. The older adults and dementia theme hopes to make brain imaging a routine part of assessing brain health in older adults. While our collaborations with the University of Oxford’s Target Discovery Institute, the Big Data Institute and the Structural Genomics Consortium focus on finding the dementia treatments of the future, we also want to offer tangible benefits to people who are approaching old age right now.
As part of this effort, we’re studying the neuroprotective effects of simple interventions such as exercise and good sleep through the facilitation of large-scale trials. We’ll be working closely with patients in developing this theme: patients will be helping us set the priorities and will be involved in everything from governance to assessing outcomes and impact.
Our research team working on the precision psychological treatments theme are developing a new online platform that will enable many more people to receive tried-and-tested psychological therapies on their computer or mobile phone. We hope that this will solve a major problem with current psychological therapies: there currently just aren’t enough therapists to provide treatment to the many people who might benefit from psychological therapy.
Once launched, the platform will allow people to log on and access therapies for conditions such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, in their own time, but also with support from a therapist as needed.
Our team will also track and assess the effectiveness of this kind of internet therapy, to further improve their treatments.
The University of Oxford is already a world leader in basic research: combined with Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust’s expertise in delivering mental health treatments, the new NIHR Oxford Health BRC will enable us to transform the care of people with mental health disorders and dementia.
Professor John Geddes
NIHR Oxford Health BRC Director, Head of R&D at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and Head of Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford