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Elle Mawson (Medicine 2021-) is a researcher in the Neuroscience and Mental Health Innovation Institute. Inspired by a family member’s struggle, her work is improving our understanding of what’s happening in the brains of patients with psychoses. Funded by a gift in a Will, Elle’s research has the potential to help develop much-needed new treatments.

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, also known as the major psychoses, aren’t well-understood. Most people don’t have personal experience of the conditions, which effect around 2% of the population. Often those with these conditions are portrayed in films, TV, and books as frightening, unstable, sometimes violent individuals with uncontrollable conditions. But the symptoms and side effects of psychoses are usually devastating for patients with a huge stigma of shame attached. Someone suffering with a psychotic disorder is far more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator.

Current treatments

Advances in medicines have been slow in the area too. Treatments are limited and can usually only help some types of symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions. Even then, around 30% of patients don’t respond to anti-psychotic medication at all. The cost to the population is around £14 billion a year in the UK alone, as well as the impact on family members, GPs and social services, who often provide care as patients go through a lengthy and frustrating ‘trial and error’ process to find the treatment options which work best.

This background to psychosis is what motivated me to want to work in this area. I have a family member who has a diagnosis, and I have seen first-hand the huge impact this has had on their life, and for us as a family. It’s such a disappointment for patients who struggle with the lack of progress in research, and I wanted to be part of the solution.

Improving our understanding

My research focusses on the issues surrounding associative learning and memory, and trying to underpin on a cellular level, what is happening in the brain of those people with psychosis and why their brains might work differently to others. Psychosis patients’ brains attribute importance to small things, that a healthy brain would know to ignore, and this can manifest into hallucinations and delusions. However, there are other symptoms that this can also cause, such as poor attention span, disrupted memories, issues with motivation and depression, which can have a huge impact on an individual’s daily life, their ability to hold down a job or even to look after themselves.

My research looks at calcium signalling in the brain. Several risk genes for neuropsychiatric conditions have been found that affect the way voltage gated calcium channels work in the brain. If we can understand why the signalling is disrupted in psychosis patients, we can in theory start to develop targeted drugs which can manage this issue. This in turn could massively help reduce – or even prevent the disruptions in learning and memory.

A culture of collaborative working

One of the most inspiring things about working at Cardiff, is scientists and clinicians working closely together. This helps keep the end goal at the forefront – finding new therapeutic options to improve the lives of patients. Whether this is new drugs or cognitive therapy, being able to work with, consult and discuss research with clinicians dealing with patients directly, helps ensure our research is always patient-led.

Another great benefit to the Cardiff team is to work collaboratively with researchers who are looking at associated conditions, and the ability to share and discuss research. The risk gene I am working with is more common in patients with not only bipolar and psychosis but also ADHD, autism, and major depression. The work that I am doing could open different research pathways for these conditions. Likewise, I have access to researchers working in these areas who could help inform my work.

A gift for the future

My PhD has been fully funded thanks to a gift in a Will that an incredibly generous supporter left to the university. It’s inspiring to know that I’ve been supported by someone who wanted to fund research that will make a difference to future generations. I am so grateful to be able to study full-time and to dedicate my efforts to unpicking the intricacies of these complex neurological conditions.

My motivation has always been the patients. I want to play my part in ensuring they have the best outcomes possible, and find a way to manage their conditions so they can live full lives and reduce the impact of their diagnoses on their loved ones and society. It is an honour that my passion for science can contribute towards that.

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