Time to Put Mental Health Research at Head of Our Priorities; Prof Julie Williams Led the Team Which Made One of the Biggest Genetic Breakthroughs in Alzheimer's Research. but She Asks Why Mental Health Remains the Poor Relation in Medical Research Funding?

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Byline: Prof Julie Williams

IGNORED and misunderstood, mental illness remains one of the key health questions yet to be answered.

Poor mental health affects some 16.7 million people in the UK today. It costs the Welsh economy a staggering pounds 7.2bn a year.

In this new age of austerity is it really an illness that we can continue to ignore? As a society we draw inspiration from the achievements of medical science in tackling diseases like cancer and heart disease.

However, when it comes to our understanding and treatment of diseases of the brain we lag behind.

Covering the full lifespan - from autism and attentiondeficit hyperactivity disorder in children to psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in adults to neuro-degenerative disorders like Alzheimer's, Huntington's and Parkinson's in the elderly - mental illness will surely affect us, our family or friends during our lifetime.

Improving care and treatment for people with mental health problems requires the same rigorous research as demanded for tackling physical illness.

But despite the huge burden that poor mental health represents to society, mental health research remains incredibly under-funded.

Only 5% of medical research in the UK is into mental health, despite 15% of disability caused by disease being due to mental illness.

However, Wales is playing its part. Welsh universities are key players with my own, Cardiff University, already recognised as a world-leader in identifying the genetic origins of such diseases as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and Alzheimer's disease.

At the last research assessment exercise, Cardiff University ranked among the very best in the UK for psychology, psychiatry and neurology and clinical psychology.

In my own area of research, we've secured widespread recognition for the largest-ever joint Alzheimer's disease genome-wide association study, involving 16,000 individuals. The study, published in Nature Genetics, uncovered two new genes associated with Alzheimer's disease. Previously only one gene, APOE4, had been shown to be a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.

Our study revealed, for the first time, that two further genes, CLU and PICALM, are related to Alzheimer's disease.

More recently, as part of an international collaboration, we've uncovered evidence for four additional susceptibility genes for Alzheimer's, opening up new avenues for research.

Two of the new susceptibility genes regulate how large molecules are taken into and are transported within cells. Together they highlight a process that was not previously known to be involved in Alzheimer's disease.

Others support the involvement of cholesterol processing and inflammation in the brain, as triggers of disease. This is exciting news as it gives us new lines of inquiry.This research provides valuable new leads in the race to find treatments and possibly cures for the devastating conditions.

We have a responsibility to do more but this can only be achieved if we are given the opportunity and, more importantly, the funding to take our research to the next level.

A recent review by the Medical Research Council, the UK's major research funder, showed UK-funded mental health research is world class and we are well placed to lead the way.

It concluded there are several opportunities to fund more research that would help accelerate progress in developing new treatments or lead to better ways of preventing mental illness in the first place. …