10 of the most important things we learned about mental health this year

ShutterstockMany important discoveries were made in 2018.
  • In 2018, researchers around the world worked tirelessly to combat a range of mental health issues.
  • Scientists found more effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and further delved into the relationship between sleep and depression.
  • Previously under-researched drugs such as ketamine, marijuana, and ecstasy became the main focus for many researchers when seeking potential treatments for anxiety and depression, among other mental health concerns.

Approximately one in five adults in the US – 43.8 million –experiences mental illness in a given year, according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness. That being said, it’s no surprise that each and every year researchers put time and enormous amounts of money into tackling the growing mental health crisis.

It seems in 2018, much of their hard work paid off – around the world researchers crumbled myths and opened new doors as they aimed to better comprehend the complicated world of invisible illnesses.

Here are 10 of the most important things we learned about mental health in 2018.


Scientists discovered “master keys” that could help better them to understand schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder.

Getty/skynesherRecent discoveries could help with the treatment of autism.

In 2018, researchers at Emory and the Chinese Academy of Sciences aimed to better understand complex brain disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). To do so, the researchers identified a few “master keys,” risk genes important for brain function and then created mice partially lacking one of those master keys, called MIR-137.

They found that the mice lacking MIR-137, a gene that regulates hundreds of other genes, displayed learning and memory deficits, repetitive behaviours and impaired sociability.

But when treated with papaverine, a vasodilator and Pde10a inhibitor, these scientists could improve the mice’s performance on social tests and maze navigation.

The research is especially as important as it has previously been found that people with too much MIR-137 exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia while those with too little exhibit symptoms of autism.

“It’s interesting to think about in the context of precision medicine,” said senior author Peng Jin, Ph.D., professor of human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine. “Individuals with a partial loss of MIR137 – either genomic deletions or reduced expression- could potentially be candidates for treatment with Pde10a inhibitors.”


Written exposure therapy was found to help some patients with PTSD.

Chinnapong / ShutterstockPTSD is a prevalent disorder, often times, though not exclusively, affecting war veterans.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” The condition affects 5% of Americans at any given time and can be debilitating – causing people to disconnect from their lives and have extreme emotional or physical reactions.

Research supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) aimed to find a more efficient way to treat PTSD, as current treatments require extensive training for therapists and burdensome work for patients. Their solution was written exposure therapy (WET), a treatment including five sessions during which patients write about their specific traumatic event.

The researchers found that treating PTSD patients using WET was as successful as treating them with cognitive processing therapy (CPT), a widely accepted treatment consisting of 12 weekly therapy sessions.

The research was important as it made clear that PTSD can be effectively treated with a five-session psychotherapy.


Researchers may have found a better way to prevent suicide.

Aipon / ShutterstockResearchers are using data to determine at-risk individuals.

Suicide accounted for nearly 45,000 deaths in the United States in 2016. In an attempt to address the issue, researchers looked at ways of using electronic health records to predict suicide attempts and deaths by suicide.

Researchers used the fact that half of the people who die by suicide, and two-thirds of people who attempt suicide, received a mental health diagnosis or treatment in the previous year, to track individuals who might be at risk of suicide.

Dr. Gregory Simon, M.P.H., a senior investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, and colleagues used data from electronic health records (EHRs) provided by seven major health systems to create a model that could determine at-risk people.

The researchers found that using variables such as mental health diagnoses, substance use diagnoses, use of mental health emergency and inpatient care, history of self-harm, and scores on the Patient Health Questionnaire, they were successfully able to predict who is at risk for suicide attempt and death.

“By leveraging existing electronic health record data and advancements in statistical modelling, it is possible to significantly improve the prediction of death by suicide and suicide attempts over conventional self-report methods,” said Michael Freed, Ph.D., chief of the Services Research and Clinical Epidemiology Branch in the NIMH Division of Services and Intervention Research.

“Valid and reliable suicide risk prediction models hold tremendous promise to reduce death by suicide, especially when integrated with evidence-supported approaches to suicide prevention.”


Researchers discovered a strong association between depressive symptoms and poor sleep quality.

Photographee.eu/ShutterstockDepressive symptoms and poor sleep quality often go hand in hand. In fact, About 75% of depressed patients report significant levels of sleep disturbance and people with insomnia also have a higher risk of developing depression.

It’s no surprise that there exists a strong correlation between sleep quality and mental health.

New research, however, shed new light on this relationship by “identifying functional connectivities in the brain that mediate the association between depressive symptoms and poor sleep quality.”

In other words, rather than determine that there was a relationship between depression and poor quality, this research pinpointed the underlying mechanism associated with both depression and sleep quality.

The research found that both poor sleep quality and depressive symptoms were associated with neural connectivities involving the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the cingulate cortex, and the precuneus, all of which are different regions in the brain.

Identifying these underlying causes has major implications for the treatment of depression and poor sleep quality.

“In this work, we tried to figure out what are the brain systems associated with both depression and sleep quality. The answers to this question may lead to better treatments for both depression and sleep, especially for improving the sleep quality of depressive patients,” said study author Jianfeng Feng of Fudan University.


Researchers looked into how marijuana affects brain health.

iStockThe researchers found alcohol is more detrimental to the brain than marijuana.

The always shifting legal status of marijuana has made it difficult to perform studies and left many unanswered questions surrounding the elusive drug.

In an attempt to understand the implications of marijuana and compare them to that of alcohol, scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder conducted a review of existing imaging data that looked at the effects of alcohol and marijuana on the brain.

They looked at how marijuana use affects grey matter, the tissue on the brain’s surface that primarily consists of nerve cell bodies, and white matter, the deeper brain tissue that contains myelinated nerve fibres, in the brain and how its effects compared with alcohol.

Loss of either grey matter or white matter can affect everything from reflexive reactions to memory.

After studying the brain images of 853 adults who were aged between 18 and 55 years and 439 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18, scientists found that marijuana had no long-term effects on the brain.

Alcohol use, however, was associated with a reduction in grey matter volume, as well as a reduction in the integrity of white matter.


Research may have found a link between anxiety symptoms and Alzheimer’s.

ShutterstockFollow-up studies are required to determine whether older adults who experience an increase in anxiety symptoms actually go on to develop Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the US and affects 5.7 million Americans.

To combat the destructive disease, researchers are working hard to determine both what causes it and how to treat it.

In 2018, research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that increasing symptoms of anxiety were linked to higher levels of beta-amyloid, which is a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Specifically, it was found that adults who showed an increase in anxiety symptoms over five years also had higher levels of beta-amyloid in their brains.

The results suggested “a direct or indirect association of elevated amyloid beta levels with worsening anxious-depressive symptoms.” They also support the longstanding hypothesis that people who will develop Alzheimer’s disease might previously exhibit neuropsychiatric symptoms.


Ketamine was looked at as a treatment for depression.

Ketamine, a drug previously known as a “party drug,” may be the first new depression drug in 30 years.

Johnson & Johnson, one of the pharmaceutical companies pursuing the drug’s potential antidepressant qualities, presented some promising new research in May 2018.

Their version of ketamine is a nasal spray made with a compound called esketamine, the chemical mirror image of ketamine.

In the drug’s clinical trial, researchers had 236 adults with treatment-resistant depression take a traditional antidepressant for four weeks alongside a nasal spray – only half of them got a spray with the drug in it while the other half got a placebo.

The results found that people who got the real spray saw significantly better improvements in their depressive symptoms than those who got the placebo, over the course of 28 days.

Johnson & Johnson isn’t the only pharmaceutical company pursuing the drug as a potential treatment for depression. Allergan, the company known for Botox, for example, recently conducted studies on a depression drug called Rapastinel, which works on the same brain pathway as ketamine.


Scientists found that blood vessel development plays a role in psychiatric disorders.

ShutterstockBy tapping into the right gene pool, researchers believe they can use blood vessel we can use the development of blood vessels to prevent psychiatric disorders.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve cells in the adult brain, is not a new term in the research world.

However, recent discoveries in the Angiogenesis and Brain Development Laboratory of Anju Vasudevan, Ph.D. have discovered an alternate GABA pathway in blood vessels that could play a role in the development of nervous system disorders.

“Brain development is like a gem that is cut with many facets that sparkle,” she said. “What is new here is that we are saying there is an alternate GABA pathway in blood vessels, and If you disturb that pathway, this too results in neuropsychiatric disorders. It’s like two sides of a coin.”

Therefore, rather than tackling the symptoms of these disorders, her research might help to prevent the development of these disorders by deleting particular genetic components.

“We have medications to delay strokes or to protect against strokes or heart attacks, but we have not thought of that perspective when it comes to psychiatric diseases. By tapping into the right gene pool, we can use angiogenesis to prevent or treat psychiatric disorders, ” Vasudevan said.


Researchers found that MDMA might help social anxiety in people with autism.

luckakcul / ShutterstockMDMA is often referred to as ecstasy.

New research, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, found that MDMA (ecstasy) could help reduce social anxiety in people with autism.

The small study involved 12 people with autism, all of whom were given two sessions of MDMA-assisted therapy.

Those with the MDMA-assisted therapy reported a greater reduction of social anxiety than those who were given a placebo with the therapy.

Although the study was small, the researchers are confident of the positive impacts of MDMA on the participants.

“What was particularly notable for many of the participants after treatment was their increased self-confidence when interacting in social settings, an endeavour that in the past they had experienced as overwhelming,” said Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA and one of the authors of the study.


Social media usage might make depression and loneliness worse.

iStockSocial media usage can greatly affect mental health, according to one recent study.

A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that cutting your time on social media to 30 minutes a day reduces your risk of depression and loneliness.

Although the relationship between social media and mental health is hotly explored, this was the first study to show a direct cause-and-effect relationship between social media usage and mental health issues.

The study only looked at Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

“Here’s the bottom line,” the lead researcher for the study, Melissa Hunt, told Science Daily.

“Using less social media than you normally would lead to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”

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