Unravelling the genetics of child and youth psychiatry

Brisbane is a long way from Amsterdam - 16,183 kilometres to be exact. There’s an eight-hour time difference, the average summer temperature differs by about nine degrees, and the bread in Brisbane is perhaps not quite up to European standards.

But for Professor Christel Middeldorp, who joined the Child Health Research Centre (CHRC) in February, there is nowhere she’d rather be. Professor Middeldorp was attracted to Queensland by the opportunity to combine clinical work with her research on the genetic variants underlying childhood psychopathology.

Through her conjoint appointment with Queensland Health, Professor Middeldorp hopes to establish and follow a large clinical cohort. “CHRC’s close proximity with Lady Cilento Hospital gives a good opportunity for that,” says Professor Middeldorp. “Genetic research may also provide information on which biological pathways are involved in mental health symptoms, and this could lead to new drug targets that could improve the outcomes of patients.”

Professor Middeldorp works with a consortium that draws on data from population-based longitudinal child and adolescent cohorts from around the globe. “We’ll investigate which genetic variants influence the persistence of symptoms. We’ll also look at the interplay with environmental factors like birth weight and family structure,” Professor Middeldorp explains.

“Given that mental health symptoms are heritable, when a child is seen in the clinic, we know that their parents are also at higher risk of mental health symptoms.

"This can further exacerbate the symptoms of the child. Therefore, in the clinical cohort, we want to intervene in the mental health symptoms of the parents and see if that benefits the treatment of the child.

“We also plan to follow children whose parents don’t have mental health symptoms. We will assess their genetics and other biomarkers to see which factors influence outcomes of mental health symptoms. Our aim is to inform and adapt treatment programs, ensuring that children at high risk of persistent symptoms receive more targeted treatment.”

Professor Middeldorp recently received the 2017 ÜlküÜlgür MD International Scholar Award from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The award recognises researchers making significant contributions to mental health services for children and adolescents.

This story is featured in the Summer 2017 edition of UQMedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine visit our content hub, MayneStream.