£1m project sets out to find mental illness ‘fingerprint’ in brainwaves

A team of psychologists and psychiatrists are beginning research on a brainwave ‘fingerprint’ which could identify young people at risk of developing serious mental illness.

Researchers from the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh are looking to recruit 100 volunteers aged between 16 and 35 for a new £1m project which will measure their brain activity and examine changes in their mental state for a period of up to two years.

The Youth Mental Health Risk and Resilience Study (YouR-Study) will use magnetoencephalography (MEG), a brain imaging technique, to examine a specific set of brainwaves known to be involved in cognitive functions. The University of Glasgow is home to the only MEG equipment in Scotland.

The researchers hope that the project could lead to an early-warning system capable of identifying people at high risk of developing psychosis before they fully manifest the symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusions.

Volunteers will be drawn from the general public, recruited via the study’s website at your-study.org.uk, and people who have had past contact with NHS mental health services. They will also be offered access to mental health services if required at any stage during the study.

YouR-Study will be led by Dr Peter Uhlhaas of the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology.

Dr Uhlhaas said: “The study will be the first of its kind to use MEG to investigate links between neural oscillations and their synchronisation, which recent research has shown may well play a role in the development of psychosis. MEG uses very sensitive magnetometers to record magnetic fields produced by electrical currents occurring naturally in the brain, creating a sophisticated map of brain activity.

“The particular frequencies we’re looking at play a key role in controlling cognitive and perceptual processes, which are seriously affected in those suffering from psychosis. By identifying shared characteristics in the brainwaves of those in the early stages of risk, we’re hoping to find a specific ‘fingerprint’ which we can use to more easily identify people before they become seriously ill.

“In addition to the severely disabling personal effects of psychosis, the cost of treatment can be very high – a 2005 study estimated the total annual cost across the EU at 20 billion euros. We’re hoping that closer examination of these brainwaves will help lead to a better outcome for patients and also a reduction in the cost impact that serious mental illness can have on healthcare services.”

The Medical Research Council-funded study will also involve researchers from the University of Edinburgh and mental health professionals from NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde and NHS Lothian.

Media enquiries: ross.barker@glasgow.ac.uk / 0141 330 3535

First published: 25 September 2014