Researching the biology of brain disorders

‘Social interaction plays a key role in many neuropsychiatric disorders, such as depression, autism, dementia and schizophrenia. Fewer social contacts with friends, family and colleagues is often one of the first signs of such a disorder. I study the biological mechanisms at the root of social interaction and abnormalities in this interaction’.

‘Neuropsychiatric conditions are traditionally classified according to visible, qualitative symptoms. A distinction is made between groups of patients who deviate from the norm, without the need for any biological qualification. What we do is fundamentally different. In behavioural biology, we look at the biological causes of behaviour. This transcends individual disorders: patients with very different diagnoses such as depression, dementia or schizophrenia, may show striking similarities when it comes to reduced social interaction.

One of the ways in which we try to work out whether these shared symptoms have a common biological basis is by conducting animal tests. We want to know how circuits in the brain develop and how they contribute to social behaviour. Many neuropsychiatric conditions appear very early in life, when the cortex (the area that processes outside stimuli) is still developing. Mice are perfect for such experiments, because their brains process stimuli in much the same way as human brains. In addition, mice display a whole range of social behaviours. We make EEGs, for example, or analyse the development of the brain systems of mice displaying reduced social interaction.

To translate this into human behaviour, we record the same kind of data as we would for human patients. Brain scans, blood levels, but social behaviour too. We try to observe behaviour as objectively as possible. Measuring social behaviour in patients is extremely tricky. Research of this kind usually involves questionnaires, but of course we never know whether patients have a realistic idea of their level of social interaction. To overcome this problem, we have developed an app for smartphones, which monitors user behaviour, for example, whether they leave the house, how often they make phone calls, use WhatsApp and so on. This gives us a good, objective impression of their behaviour.

We hope that these approaches will help us to understand the biological mechanisms behind social withdrawal and ultimately develop better medication for the abnormal behaviour associated with various brain disorders, such as depression, dementia and schizophrenia. We are not conducting this research on our own. One of our partners is a large European consortium working under the name PRISM (Psychiatric Ratings using Intermediate Stratified Markers). This project, funded by the Innovative Medicine Initiative (IMI), pools the resources of thirty-three universities and pharmaceutical companies (http://www.prism-project.eu/)’.