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IoP researchers win RSM Awards

12 November 2010

Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s have been awarded both of the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) Mental Health Foundation Research Prizes for 2010. The prize is awarded for the most outstanding published papers reporting original work.

Dr Oliver Howes, Senior Clinical Lecturer at the IoP’s Section for Neuroimaging, and Dr Andrea Danese, Clinical Lecturer at the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and the Medical Research Council (MRC) Social, Genetic, and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, were presented with the awards at the RSM Psychiatry Section meeting on Tuesday 9 November.

' was surprised and delighted to be awarded the prize,' said Dr Howes. 'After working for so long on the project it is nice to see that people find the results interesting and it might have some impact.'

Dr Howes and colleagues from the IoP and the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, Hammersmith Hospital, won the first prize for their study showing that people thought to be at risk of developing schizophrenia have an increased capacity to make the brain chemical messenger dopamine. Increased dopamine activity is thought to play an important role in the generation of the psychotic symptoms that characterise schizophrenia.

The researchers used PET, a neurochemical brain scanning technique, to measure the capacity to make dopamine in individuals attending a clinic for people showing possible early signs of schizophrenia. When the brain scans of these individuals were then compared to those of schizophrenic patients and healthy controls, the dopamine capacity of the at-risk patients was elevated to a degree approaching that seen in the patients with schizophrenia. Furthermore, the levels of dopamine capacity directly correlated with the severity of psychotic symptoms.

According to Dr Howes, the team have also shown that the increased dopamine capacity was specific to the patients who went on to develop full-blown schizophrenia and that a further increase was seen as their disease progressed.

'The work tells us about some of the biological alterations that seem to underlie the development of schizophrenia. This is potentially important because it highlights new drug targets and ways to even prevent schizophrenia,' he said.

Dr Danese was awarded for his work with colleagues from King’s College London, Duke University in North Carolina, USA, and Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand, investigating how childhood stress leads to adult disease vulnerability.

Children exposed to stressful experiences are known to have elevated risk of physical, as well as mental, disease later in life, but the mechanism by which these experiences are translated into physical health problems is not known. The researchers have previously shown that adults who had been maltreated as children had increased levels of C-Reactive Protein in their blood. This inflammation marker is known to accelerate the progression of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

In their award-winning study, in which they compared blood samples from maltreated children with those from controls, the team showed that inflammation levels in a subgroup of children who have suffered maltreatment are already elevated by the age of 12.

'If replicated, these findings will suggest that effective strategies aimed at preventing the consequences of adverse childhood experiences should start in childhood,' said Dr Danese.

Dr Danese was delighted to win the RSM prize for the work he and his colleagues have undertaken. 'I believe that the award recognises our continued effort in promoting psychobiological research in young people,' he said.

The award-winning papers:

Howes, O.D. et al. (2009) Elevated striatal dopamine function linked to prodromal signs of schizophrenia. Archives of General Psychiatry. Vol 66 (no 1)

Danese, A. et al. (2010) Biological embedding of stress through inflammation processes in childhood. Molecular Psychiatry. Advance online publication, 16 February 2010; doi: 10.1038/mp.2010.5


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