Science and The Black Dog: World Mental Health Day

10 October 2017

Graphic of a head with cogs turing round inside the brain

For Winston Churchill, it was ‘the Black Dog’; Rollo May experienced it as “the inability to construct a future”. Mental health issues, like the depression they describe, affect approximately 450 million people of all ages and backgrounds worldwide.

But whilst there’s still a lot we don’t fully understand when it comes to mental health, research is helping us to learn more about these conditions and could, in time, lead to improved treatments for millions.

The World Health Organisation has designated 10th October World Mental Health Day. This is an opportunity to open up the discussion around mental health issues and to highlight the work taking place in this important field.

Mental health issues can be extremely complex and everyone is affected differently, but studies are helping us to learn more about the science behind many conditions. All of the UK’s seven research councils have committed to working together to strengthen mental health research. And so this World Mental Health Day, let’s take a look at some of the ways in which research is helping us dig deeper into the science behind mental health.

Improving treatments

Cutting-edge technology, tools and ideas, have enabled us to learn more about how to counteract some of the effects caused by depression and other mental health issues. Work at STFC’s ISIS neutron and muon source is helping us to learn more about the drugs currently used to treat mental health conditions, and what we can do to improve them.

Generic capsules of medicine on a table

Medications are made up of chemicals that pass into the bloodstream. Many of the drugs that we use to treat mental health conditions need to interact with the brain’s neurotransmitters in order to work. However, our brains are separated from our circulating blood by a membrane barrier, which can pick and choose what molecules to let in to the brain. This helps to keep out toxins and other undesirables, but it can also inadvertently prevent therapeutic drugs from getting in and having an effect.

Less than 2% of small molecules are able to cross the barrier between the blood and the brain, and this creates real challenges for the design of new drugs. So Oxford University scientists using STFC’s ISIS neutron and muon source are scrutinising the processes by which certain drugs are able to pass through the barrier to learn how we can make future drugs more effective.

Alprazolam, one of the drugs under study, is a benzodiazepine commonly used in the treatment of anxiety. It works like all benzodiazepines, by passing through the blood brain barrier and into the central nervous system, where it binds to proteins involved in feelings of anxiety.

We know that Alprazolam is able to pass through the challenging barrier, however we don’t know a great deal about the molecular structure and properties of this drug. By studying the characteristics of Alprazolam in precise molecular detail, we may be able to uncover more about how the drug is able to pass through the barrier. And this knowledge could help us to identify key properties needed in the development of new drugs.

Investigating ‘stress proteins’

Generic capsules of medicine on a table

Aerial view of Harwell Campus, home to Diamond Light Source and STFC’s ISIS neutron and muon source.
(Credit: Harwell Campus)

In addition to exploring the drugs that we use to treat mental health conditions, it is also necessary to scrutinise the structures and processes that contribute to these conditions in the first place. Work carried out at Diamond Light Source, the UK’s National Synchrotron, has revealed more about the role of a certain family of proteins in the brain that affect mood, learning and behaviour.

Found within cell membranes, G protein–coupled receptors (GPCRs) carry messages between cells. GPCRs are responsible for a huge number of functions in their body. They are a key pharmaceutical target and approximately 30% of all medications interact with this family of proteins.

By pinpointing the precise atomic structure of these receptors, it’s possible to design advanced drugs that attach to them perfectly, manipulating their effect – that’s what makes GPCRs such a powerful drug target. But in the past, we’ve not known the precise structure of the proteins involved in stress, anxiety and depression. That is, until now.

Heptares Therapeutics is a clinical-stage company using the bright beams at Diamond to study some of the receptors involved in these conditions. Thanks to the synchrotron’s advanced tools, the group has been able to unravel the structure of some key GPCRs, garnering vital information to inform the design of future drugs. Identifying the structure of these GPCRs could be a profoundly significant step forward, providing preliminary information to support the development of potential new therapies and treatments.

Science for mental health

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will suffer from mental health issues at some point in their lives. These conditions can be deeply challenging to address, but research is an important part of the effort to educate, inform and equip us to manage mental health.

Whilst science can’t offer a ‘quick fix’, we have seen scientific, medical and cultural progress in the field. Research can help us to better understand mental health; and when it comes to medical health, be it physical or mental, few things are more powerful than knowledge.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000