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New world-class centre to reveal biological clues behind brain disorders

Posted on 09/11/2016
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The MRC has awarded £3 million to King’s College London for a world-class centre that will aim to transform our understanding of disease mechanisms underlying brain disorders, and translate this knowledge into clinical advances that change people’s lives. 

The MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders will benefit from the unique convergence of renowned leaders from multiple disciplines, including neonatology, neurology, psychiatry, neuroscience, genetics, stem cells and imaging technology.

Brain disorders account for one of the greatest burdens of disease in the developed world but the currently available therapies do not work effectively for many patients, and there is a lack of treatments for many conditions. In addition, current treatments are based on symptoms and are not disease modifying, and only around 50 per cent of people respond to them. 

Drawing on expertise from eight different departments at King’s, the Centre will focus on three large groups of disorders that are thought to be caused by abnormal brain development - epilepsy, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and schizophrenia. 

For the first time in decades, technological advances in genomics are beginning to shed light on the genetic and molecular bases of the most common and severe neurodevelopmental disorders. It is also increasingly clear that environmental factors are critical in the formation of brain circuits and, as such, contribute to the emergence of these disorders. 

The identification of genes that make people more susceptible to autism and schizophrenia, along with the environmental factors that modify their impact on brain development, now offer the opportunity to elucidate the shared and distinct biological underpinnings of these disorders - and to translate these advances into rational therapies and individualised medicine.

Professor Oscar Marín, Director of the Department of Developmental Neurobiology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), will lead the new Centre. He said: “We are delighted that the MRC has made a priority of research on developmental brain disorders, and that this Centre will be at King’s. This is a vote of confidence in our research and our ability to bring together excellent clinical and basic scientists in a collective endeavour.

“Genetic advances in this field are starting to give us a reasonable idea about what puts people at risk of developing brain disorders such as epilepsy, autism or schizophrenia. We ignore, however, how these genetic changes modify the developing brain to cause disease. In the new MRC Centre we will work collectively to solve this problem. A better understanding of brain development in autism, for example, will help in developing new therapies for its treatment.

"Many brain disorders that appear early in life are highly related. For example, a significant number of patients with autism suffer from epilepsy, which severely diminishes their quality of life. We will work at the interphase between different conditions to understand what they have in common and what make them different. This is perhaps only possible at King’s, where we have fostered a culture of collaboration among neuroscientists, neurologists, neonatologists and psychiatrists that is rather unique in the world.

“The new Centre will nurture the next generation of world-leading scientists, able to work at the interface between fundamental science and clinical research. Together, we will create new opportunities for research in areas that are relatively underdeveloped, and coordinate our efforts with other leading centres across the nation to seek novel solutions for our patients.”

Dr Kathryn Adcock, head of neurosciences and mental health at the MRC, said: “The new Centre will represent a unique opportunity for the UK and will help to bring about better understanding of the impacts of genetic and environmental factors on the developing brain to dramatically increase our knowledge of the disorders epilepsy, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and schizophrenia.

“The breadth of the science at the Centre will provide training opportunities for the next generation of researchers, some of whom could become leaders, and will also facilitate potential links to industry.  At the same time, the integration of basic and clinical work will present the opportunity to speed up the translation of discovery science into treatment for patients.” 

The funding will be used for a new PhD programme in neurodevelopmental disorders and six month placements for clinical specialist trainees where they gain research experience in a Centre laboratory, and attend special lectures and career workshops. 

Notes to editors

For further media information please contact Jack Stonebridge, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London on jack.stonebridge@kcl.ac.uk or 020 7848 5377.

Find out more about the Centre on their new website.

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