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Research Fellows Directory

Heather Whalley

Dr Heather Whalley

Research Fellow


University of Edinburgh

Research summary

Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are common, disabling psychiatric disorders. Bipolar disorder is characterised by alterations in mood and behaviour, and schizophrenia typically presents with psychotic symptoms. Despite moderately effective treatments the disorders tend to be recurrent or persistent and have a negative impact on people’s lives. Although the causes are unknown, both disorders have a strong genetic component and evidence suggests that there may be cross-over of inheritance between the disorders. Further, no symptom is uniquely associated with either condition, and symptoms can vary between people with the same diagnosis. Current research therefore suggests that there are overlaps in both the clinical characteristics (symptoms) and genetic contributions to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. However, few studies have investigated mechanisms underlying shared symptoms and shared genetic risk factors. It is therefore unclear which aspects are specific to each condition and how susceptibility genes contribute to brain function and risk for developing symptoms. These issues are the focus of the current project.

The project examines functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) of the brain from two populations: one at high genetic risk of bipolar disorder, the other at high genetic risk of schizophrenia. In both cases the participants were selected on the basis of having affected close family members. The current project aims to further the understanding of which aspects are associated with specific symptom dimensions and to examine the contribution of specific susceptibility genes to brain function and risk for developing symptoms in these two disorders.

The identification of common and different neurobiological mechanisms across these

disorders and how causative genes may or may not manifest as disorder may in the longer term provide a fruitful strategy for elucidating the causes of, and possible treatment targets for, these conditions.

Interests and expertise (Subject groups)

Grants awarded

Brain function in high risk bipolar disorder and schizophrenia

Scheme: Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship

Dates: Oct 2009 - Sep 2014

Value: £401,988.80

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