Mental health has become a prominent topic of discussion in this year’s general election campaign, with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg pledging “equality for people with mental health issues” and £3.5 billion of additional funding for care.
But while this money would be used for new facilities, reducing waiting times and improving access to treatment – all cures – prevention is not addressed. Middlesex University’s Dr Zola Mannie, a Research Fellow in the School of Science and Technology, is one of those seeking to answer the important question:’Why do some people develop depression?’
In my research I am investigating young people aged 18-21 years who have never been depressed. Within this age range I am interested in comparing those who have experienced childhood adversity and/or those with a depressed parent with those who have not experienced adversity or parental depression. By childhood adversity, I mean events such as parental/familial neglect, maltreatment and various forms of abuse before the age of 17 years.
Although it is known that childhood adversity or parental depression increase the risk of developing depression, they do not seem to be sufficient to cause its onset. That means, not everyone exposed to these events/situations will get depressed – some will, but a significant number will not. The question is why? It seems that there may be other important factors – both neurobiological and psychological – involved and that is the basis of my research.
Could BDNF hold the key?
I am particularly interested in a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is involved in neuroplasticity – the ability for the brain to strengthen or weaken neural connections as a result of changes in the environment, behaviour, cognitive and emotional processes or injury. The brain responds to these events throughout life, but how it responds will be partly influenced by BDNF expression and levels.
BDNF is therefore important for processes such as learning and memory, among others. Extremely high or low levels of BDNF impair learning and memory processes. I am interested in whether there are differences in BDNF production, learning and memory between those who have childhood adversity and/or parental depression compared to those without parental depression or childhood adversity.
If my research reveals that those at increased risk may produce less BDNF than those at low risk, it could be a step forward to our understanding of depression risk. The next step would be to test whether low BDNF and associated learning and memory problems can predict who will get depressed through further research. Although animal models of vulnerability to depression show that it can predict depressive-like behaviours, this has not yet been shown in humans.
The good news is that BDNF can be modified through behaviours such as physical exercise, energy restriction or cognitive training. Ultimately, through this type of research, interventions aimed at reducing the incidence of depression can be designed, and BDNF, learning and memory are potential targets.
Zola is looking for volunteers to assist with her research. Click here for more information if you would like to take part.