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Top accolade for child psychiatry pioneer

11 November 2014

Prof Anita Thapar

A Cardiff professor has said that the battle to combat and prevent childhood psychiatric disorders has had successes but is far from over, after winning a globally-recognised prize for psychiatric research in the US.

Having spent the last two decades conducting research in child and adolescent psychiatry, Professor Anita Thapar travelled to New York to pick up the coveted Ruane Prize for outstanding achievement in the field.

Worth $50,000, the prize recognises "an outstanding scientist carrying out research on the causes, pathophysiology, treatment, or prevention of severe child mental illness." The high-profile awards ceremony is designed to help build public understanding of the importance of research.

Professor Thapar's own research focuses on childhood psychiatric disorders, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and depression. She is also a practising NHS clinician.

Her work in the University's MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics & Genomics is concerned with uncovering risk genes, environmental causes and identifying how over time they lead to child psychiatric disorders. Her overarching aims are to inform therapeutic targets for future efforts in developing better methods of treatment and prevention.

Crediting the support of her family, she hopes that her achievement will inspire the next generation of scientists to have the confidence to juggle the responsibilities of a family with a clinical scientific career.

Professor Thapar spoke of the honour and excitement she feels for having won the award and hopes it will serve to raise the profile of mental health research: "I am really passionate about child and adolescent psychiatry research, and this award provides international recognition of the work we have done and are doing. I am grateful that I have had such a wonderful team to work with and had huge support from my family and mentors.

"These are difficult times for funding research in child and adolescent psychiatry and indeed for child mental health services. Yet mental disorders are set to become the leading global cause of disability and most originate in childhood and adolescence. Today's children are tomorrow's citizens.

"We need high quality scientific evidence to inform practice and dispel stigma and blame. We can't base practice and public understanding on myths and opinions. I really hope the Ruane Prize will succeed in drawing the attention of funders and policymakers to the urgent need for continued investment in child and adolescent psychiatry research."

Her career has been defined by investigating the biological and clinical links between childhood neurodevelopmental disorders. She and her research group are responsible for a number of major research discoveries. One study succeeded in disproving the theory that smoking during pregnancy causes ADHD and antisocial behaviour, and that this previous hypothesis had not taken into account the shared genetic traits and family background of mother and child.

Another breakthrough revealed that the influence of genetic effects do not directly impact specific diagnostic categories- for example,  ADHD shows genetic and clinical overlaps with Autism.

Other findings are providing clues on new treatment targets. For example, a genetic variation in the COMT gene seemed to predict a severe form of ADHD via disrupted social and emotional understanding, which could be a target for future treatments.

In another of her research projects, genetic contribution to depression was greater in adolescents compared with children, and that this seemed to be explained by an increased exposure to trauma or stresses in teenage years. This demonstrated that how genes contribute to people's risk of developing depression varies depending on age and their experiences.

Published this month, her team's latest paper found that genetic risks - which are collectively important for an ADHD diagnosis - also predict higher levels of childhood hyperactivity and impulsiveness, inattention and language difficulties in the general population.  The study reinforces her theory that rigorously diagnosed ADHD, and other types of childhood development problems, may share genetic risk factors. Future research will seek to find out what risks differentiate children with severe problems and a diagnosis, from those who have less severe problems in the general population.

Professor Sir Michael Rutter CBE was the first ever recipient of the Ruane Prize in 2000. A specialist in Developmental Psychopathology at King's College, London, he is widely regarded as a research pioneer in child and adolescent psychiatry and its modern foundations. He congratulated Professor Thapar on her award:

"Professor Anita Thapar is richly deserving of the award as she is clearly by a long way the most creative and productive academic child psychiatrist in the field.  I have worked with many extremely good child psychiatrists over the years but she is the best of these. Anita stands out from her contemporaries in several key respects. 

"Her research is both innovative and consistently replicated.  Secondly, her genetic research is firmly focussed on the need to understand the biological pathways involved in the origins and course of psychopathology.  Thirdly, her research is concerned as much with environmental causes as with genetic ones, but especially on the different varieties of nature-nurture interplay.  Finally, her research is highly programmatic with one set of findings providing the basis for new research processes. 

"The university section that she heads provides a strong integration of science and clinical service.  She is strongly supportive of junior staff and students, with whom she works and is an outstandingly good collaborator and teacher. The Ruane Prize is highly competitive but I think it is very probable that the decision to give the award to Anita was an easy one because she stands head and shoulders above others in the field. Her scientific productivity is very high in both its quality and quantity. 

"There is every reason to suppose that she will continue to be the leader in child and adolescent psychiatry in the years ahead."

The Ruane Prize is funded by the Brain & Behaviour Research Foundation and is one of five categories in the Foundation Outstanding Achievement Awards. In 2012, Professors Mick O'Donovan and Mike Owen, also from the University's MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics & Genomics, were jointly awarded the Lieber Prize for outstanding achievement in schizophrenia research – another category within the Foundation's awards. Professor Owen congratulated his colleague on her success:

"I have nothing but admiration for Anita. She has made a massive contribution to child psychiatry research, treated some of the most challenging cases, and inspired and taught a generation of young researchers and clinicians. All of us in the MRC Centre are delighted and very proud to see her achievements recognised in this way."

Cardiff University Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Riordan said:

"It's extremely encouraging to see one of our researchers making such significant advances in our understanding of childhood and adolescent psychiatric illness.

"Professor Thapar's research will help to improve outcomes for children with neurodevelopmental disorders in ways that would previously be impossible.

"It is most gratifying to see Professor Thapar's tireless efforts receiving further international recognition, which, I'm confident, will endure throughout her career."

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