Published: 30-11-2022 16:50 | Updated: 02-12-2022 10:41

New major EU-funded research project takes broad approach on mental health

Illustration in black and white about mental health. Picture: Pixabay.
Image: Pixabay

To improve understanding of mental health, today’s symptom-based diagnoses need to be complemented with biological criteria accounting for differences between individuals and the sexes. A major EU-funded research project, coordinated by Uppsala University, will pursue an interdisciplinary path towards better strategies to protect vulnerable individuals from mental illness. Three research teams at Karolinska Institutet participate in the project.

Mental illnesses represent a significant burden on society, the economy and the individuals affected. The Building Resilience against Mental illness during Endocrine-sensitive life stages (RE-MEND) research project will focus on four critical life stages at which an individual’s susceptibility to mental illness is strongly influenced by changes in hormonal signalling: early life, puberty, peripartum, and transition into old age.

One of the main objectives is to integrate data from large population-based longitudinal cohort studies, allowing for discovery of early risks as well as protective factors that influence mental states in the general population across these life stages.

Integration of biological, medical and social aspects

“If we understand how an individual’s genome and environment interact to make it more susceptible or resilient to mental health issues, we can prevent instead of treat mental disorders,” says Joëlle Rüegg, coordinator of RE-MEND and Professor of Environmental toxicology at Uppsala University.

An important feature of the project is that it will integrate biological, medical and social aspects. For example, findings in human data will be complemented by experimental studies to establish causative links leading to a mechanistic understanding of mental health and illness. Furthermore, communication scientists will investigate how the project’s findings can be used to change medical practices and reduce stigma against affected individuals.

Collage of portrait photos, three people.
Ivan Nalvarte, Karin Broberg and Maria Kippler. Photo: N/A

Three research teams from Karolinska Institutet, led by Associate Professor Ivan Nalvarte (Department of Biosciences and Nutrition), Professor Karin Broberg (Institute of Environmental Medicine (IMM)) and Associate Professor Maria Kippler (IMM) will take active part in this interdisciplinary project. They will assess how nutritional and toxic factors during early life and puberty may associate with mental health, as well as develop a life-stage experimental model to study the molecular underpinnings of mental illness relation to hormonal signalling.

“Although it is known that hormonal imbalance during critical life stages can influence mental health, it is not well known what other factors are involved that can mediate resilience or vulnerability to mental illness during these life stages” says Ivan Nalvarte, who is an expert in neuroendocrinology and will lead the project at KI. “To address this question, an interdisciplinary effort is needed,” adds Nalvarte.

The EU collaboration paves the way towards validated biomarkers for assessing the state of a person’s mental health, predisposition to illness and personalised preventive and therapeutic measures. The aim of RE-MEND is to produce better strategies to protect vulnerable individuals from mental illness during sensitive life stages and to decrease stigma associated with mental health issues.

Brief facts:

Project title: Building Resilience against Mental illness during Endocrine-sensitive life stages (RE-MEND)
Project duration: 5 years (start date 1.12.2022)
EU funding: € 10.4m (The research and innovation programme Horizon Europe)
Consortium: 15 partners: Uppsala university, Sweden; University of Cologne, Germany; Karolinska Institutet, Sweden; Umeå University, Sweden; Stockholm University, Sweden; University of Milan, Italy; Bielefeld University, Germany; Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, USA; Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Germany; Karlstad University, Sweden; Fondazione Telethon, Italy; University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, USA; VA (Public and Science), Sweden; International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh; University of Helsinki, Finland; and Ulster University, Northern Ireland.

Coordinating institution: Uppsala University, Sweden