“We can be much better at preventing mental illness”
RE-MEND is a newly launched EU project that aims to generate new knowledge on the prevention of mental illness. Meet Joëlle Rüegg, Professor of Environmental Toxicology at Uppsala University, in a conversation about a multidisciplinary, multi-million euro project that concerns us all.
Mental illness is one of the greatest societal challenges of our time. It is one of the most common causes of sick leave and increasingly affects young people as early as during puberty. Joëlle Rüegg is a professor in environmental toxicology at Uppsala University, has a background in biochemistry, and is researching endocrine disruptors and their impact on brain function and development.
Understanding biological background factors
When it comes to mental illness, healthcare today is largely focused on treating symptoms. Joëlle Ruegg wants to turn this around and instead understand what makes mental illness happen. RE-MEND (Building Resilience against Mental illness during Endocrine-sensitive life stages) is a newly launched research project and multi-million euro initiative involving 16 different universities with funding from Horizon Europe. Joëlle Rüegg is the initiator and coordinator of the collaborative project.
“Our research project aims to better understand how genes and environment play a role in an individual's psychological well-being. Society needs to become better at prevention rather than treatment. But to do that, we need to understand why and when mental illness tends to occur,” she says.
Four sensitive life periods
There are periods in life that are more sensitive than others. Periods when hormone signalling is particularly active and when some individuals are at risk of mental illness. In RE-MEND, researchers will study mental health in relation to four life stages: early life, puberty, the period around childbirth and ageing.
Large and complex puzzle
The hypothesis is that these periods lay the foundations for developing or not developing mental illness later in life. Some individuals are more vulnerable and susceptible to mental illness, while others develop resilience. Why is this? To find out, researchers need to piece together a large and complex puzzle.
An important part of this puzzle involves analysing data from large population-based studies. In Sweden, several such studies are available. The SELMA study is one example, which deals with exposure to endocrine disruptors. Data from women and children have been collected over several years from early pregnancy through childbirth and upwards in age.
“These kinds of studies are very valuable to us. We try to find patterns and biological markers that are linked to see if there are any correlations, even before an individual becomes ill,” says Joëlle Rüegg.
But there is no population study that covers a whole life cycle. That is why the researchers will combine several different studies to analyse all four stages of life. More experimental trials will also be carried out as part of the project.
“The aim is to identify certain core environmental factors that influence brain development and function, such as stress, chemicals or what you eat. We will then try to translate this into an experimental design,” says Joëlle Rüegg.
To see possible behavioural effects, the research team will conduct experiments on mice. But brain organoids, i.e. cell models that mimic brain development in 3D, will also be used to find out which factors influence vulnerability and resilience early on in development. To do this, stem cells from the SELMA study will be used to further link experimental data back to population-based findings. AI will also be used to process the large amount of data that will be generated by the project.
Reducing the stigma of mental illness
RE-MEND is a multidisciplinary project involving chemists, psychologists and researchers in communication studies. Joëlle Rüegg believes that this is the key to success.
“You cannot work in a piecemeal fashion, as you then risk missing important perspectives and crucial factors. When it comes to mental health, there are so many factors at play, not least how we talk about it in society,” she says.
Joëlle Rüegg believes that the stigma surrounding mental illness can be reduced by increasing the understanding that there are underlying biological explanations. But it is important how we communicate about such explanations, which is why communication specialists are also involved in the project, analysing these very issues.
Collaboration key to success
At its heart, the project is about reversing the rising trend in mental illness. Collaboration is a key to success. Not only collaboration between universities and research teams, but also with the rest of society.
“For example, schools that work with children and young people going through puberty are very important. Maternity services, which meet pregnant couples, can also play a major role in preventing mental illness,” states Joëlle Rüegg.
Driven by societal challenges
Joëlle Rüegg is driven by working on issues that have a major impact on society. She hopes the project will help pinpoint the factors that influence a person’s mental health and their susceptibility to illness. It will also pave the way for more personalised and preventive interventions.