IBRO and Wellcome are delighted to announce the selected projects to be part of the first edition of the Neuroscience Capacity Accelerator for Mental Health! Launched in 2023, this exciting program aims to enhance neuroscience research related to mental health in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), with a focus on promoting research capacity and accelerating the potential for impactful research programs on anxiety, depression and psychosis.

Among 122 applications received from countries all over the world, from which 89 were eligible, 11 projects have been selected to receive funding for 2024! IBRO and Wellcome warmly congratulate all the awardees and look forward to starting this new program!

The selected projects are:


Advancing Anxiety Research in the Dominican Republic: EEG Pilot
  • Lead applicant: Laura Sanchez-Vincitore (Iberoamerican University, Dominican Republic)
  • Co-applicant(s): María Esmeralda Castelló Gómez (Biological Research Institute Clemente Estable, Uruguay); Jon Andoni Duñabeitia (University Nebrija, Spain); Agustín Ibáñez (University Adolfo Ibáñez, Chile)
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This study explores the interplay between anxiety and empathy by the employment of neurocardiac assessments, thus combining the measurements of brain and heart activities. The primary objective is to unravel how this relationship affects emotions, thoughts and reactions in different situations, as well as its impact on the ability to understand others and establish meaningful relationships. The research team includes lived experience advisors who will add to the relevance of this project to those directly affected by ensuring their experiences are well-considered in the study. This approach makes our research more practical and supports UNIBE’s dedication to student well-being. It also creates opportunities for long-term research collaborations that provide global benefits by improving our knowledge of mental health and brain functioning. This project marks an attempt to enhance mental health research in the Dominican Republic, where local researchers would benefit from the expertise of scholars conducting research abroad.


Exploring indigenous neuroactive plants as novel treatment for depression
  • Lead applicant: Makhotso Lekhooa (North West University, South Africa)
  • Co-applicant(s): Fabien Schultz (Neubrandenburg University of Applied Sciences, Germany)
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The global prevalence of depression increased by 25 – 28 % during the first year of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic data estimated that 82% of people living with mental disorders lived in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Furthermore, the administration of antidepressants alone, led to poor remission and occurrence of adverse side effects, necessitating a need for novel therapies. Recently, there has been increased awareness and interest in the therapeutic potential of psychoactive plants for the central nervous system. African communities are dependent on medicinal plants for their primary healthcare needs. While ethnobotanical reports provide empirical evidence on the use of herbal medicines amongst African communities, very little is known about the active compounds found in these plants. Findings from our previous research (doi: 10.3389/fphar.2022.895286) highlighted 185 plants from South Africa used for depression-like ailments. However, 85 % of them are understudied with little or no scientific data. Therefore, this project aims to generate pilot data on the potential of 2-5 South African plants, by identifying plant compounds, network pharmacology and molecular docking applications to deepen our understanding of their neuroactive potential. This project is an opportunity to initiate interdisciplinary collaboration between South Africa and Germany, learn from lived experience and broaden our mental health networks.

Maternal health biomarkers and association with common mental disorders
  • Lead applicant: Abid Malik (Health Services Academy, Pakistan)
  • Co-applicant(s): Lauren Osborne (Weill Cornell Medicine, USA); Pamela Surkan (John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA)
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This study targets pregnant women from a semi-urban area of Islamabad, Pakistan, where depression rates are high but the underlying causes are not well-explored. To date, the literature has shown causative effects of various psychosocial factors, such as low social support during pregnancy and intimate partner violence, towards mental health disorders. Therefore, this longitudinal study aims to understand the complex interplay of the biopsychosocial risk factors and point towards future research directions. A sample of 100-150 women in the second trimester of pregnancy will be recruited and continue to be followed after childbirth. Socio-demographic factors and any history of physical morbidity or chronic physical ailments will be studied and accounted for. Blood samples will be drawn to assess immunological, hormonal, and vitamin levels which have shown some association with poor maternal health. Two-time point data will be used to evaluate the association and variability of targeted risk factors and the course of biological changes throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Gestational Enriched Environment in a Postpartum Depression Model
  • Lead applicant: Maria Angelica Rivarola (National University of Cordoba, Argentina)
  • Co-applicant(s): Georgina Renard (Universidad de Santiago de Chile, Chile); Franco Mir (National University of Cordoba, Argentina)
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Our project focuses on postpartum depression (PPD), a condition affecting mothers and often involving anxiety symptoms. We aim to unravel the underlying biology of PPD and explore ways to alleviate it, contributing to a broader understanding of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Our research employs an animal model of PPD, inducing depression-like behavior in mothers and brain region alterations characteristic of PPD. This study investigates if gestational environmental enrichment can prevent PPD development. Our findings could lead to new strategies for helping mothers who experience PPD, making it easier for them to navigate this challenging period. This project involves generating scientific data, modernizing our laboratory by acquiring new equipment, and fostering enhanced scientific expertise through international collaboration with the Chilean laboratory.

Redefining Environmental Enrichment Models: Investigating Etiology and Therapeutic Strategies for Depression
  • Lead applicant: Thomas Tagoe (University of Ghana, Ghana)
  • Co-applicant(s): Joseph Raimondo (University of Cape Town, South Africa); Seth Asafo (University of Ghana, Ghana)
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Depression is a pervasive mental health disorder affecting millions worldwide and, as such, understanding its complexities and finding effective treatments is of utmost importance. One common approach that is used in research laboratories and has proven to be effective in the treatment of depression in animals is housing them in stimulative environments. However, using this knowledge to the benefit of people with depression has proven a challenge because, in human beings, depression typically sets in while we are already living in a stimulative world with complex sensory cues, social interactions, cognitive challenges and some level of physical activity. Therefore, this project aims to establish a new method of enriched environments for animals that better mimics human conditions, thus enhancing the relevance of the findings to those affected. The overarching goal is to deepen our understanding of depression by exploring how short, but regular, changes in the environment of individuals with depression could serve as a method of treatment. In addition, cutting-edge research techniques examining brain activity and behavior will be employed to assess the benefits of this therapy to their mental health.

Autonomic Arousal, Emotional Regulation, and Attentional Bias in Depression
  • Lead applicant: Hoo Keat Wong (University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, Malaysia)
  • Co-applicant(s): Alessio Bellato (University of Southampton, UK)
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Depression does not involve feelings of sadness only but also encompasses a complex web of emotions, thoughts, and physical reactions. This study will examine how people with depression regulate their emotions, and how their bodies physiologically respond to, focus on, or avoid certain information. To achieve this, the research team will sample adults from Malaysia with the outlook of gaining insights that may differ from most Western research, given the diverse and rich blend of cultures and ethnicities that this group represents. This approach will offer a unique backdrop to understanding how cultural and societal norms can influence depression and its features, including emotion regulation. The project’s overarching objectives are twofold. We aim to better understand how people handle emotions and how the attentional allocation towards visual stimuli with different emotional valence differs in those with a diagnosis of depression compared to those without. We also intend to deepen our insights into the body’s physical response when dealing with emotional situations by looking at heart rate variability. The findings have the potential to reshape how we approach mental health treatments for conditions like depression, anxiety, and psychosis. We aim to develop new tools to help identify symptoms earlier and customize treatment plans, especially considering the cultural and regional differences between Malaysia and the UK.


Machine Learning Approaches in Exploring the Biology of Mental Disorders
  • Lead applicant: Bhavana Muralidharan (Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine, India)
  • Co-applicant(s): Noel Buckley (University of Oxford, UK)
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Bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses pose a substantial socio-economic burden on patients. This is amplified by a lack of targeted medical therapies due to the challenging and not fully understood molecular reasons behind them. In the Muralidharan lab, organoids (brain-resembling structures) are being grown from patients with bipolar disorder, and research techniques such as genetic sequencing are being used to study gene activity and examine how cells develop. This current study will build on machine learning approaches to analyze multi-modal data from patients. Ultimately, these results will be combined and analyzed with the aim of deepening our understanding of such complex disorders and possibly moving towards more precise diagnoses and treatments for patients with neuropsychiatric disorders.

Whole-genome sequencing of parent-child trios of early-onset schizophrenia
  • Lead applicant: Guilherme Vanoni Polanczyk (Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil)
  • Co-applicant(s): Maria Rita Passos Bueno (Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil); Anita Thapar (Cardiff University School of Medicine, UK)
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Schizophrenia is an impairing condition and the existing antipsychotics often show limited efficacy and safety, particularly in children/adolescents. Understanding the underlying causes of schizophrenia is crucial towards developing new treatments. A large proportion of the variation in the distribution of schizophrenia in the population is attributed to genetic factors, so identifying risk genes is a key step towards understanding the brain mechanisms involved in schizophrenia. This study aims to advance knowledge about genetic factors conferring risk to early-onset (<18 years) schizophrenia (EOS), an extreme phenotype for which there is an especially strong genetic contribution and where treatment is especially challenging. We are primarily interested in spontaneous (de novo) sequence and structural variation. Given that de novo variation is rare, two or more independent recurrent events in a sample of hundreds of offspring with EOS will generate strong evidence for an association between the affected gene(s) and EOS. To accomplish our goal, we will recruit 30 parent-offspring trios where the offspring has a diagnosis of DSM-5 schizophrenia and definitive onset of symptoms before 18 years of age. The offspring will undergo interviews to confirm diagnoses, collect phenotypic data, and provide saliva samples. Whole-genome sequencing will identify de novo sequence and structural variation. This study will generate pilot data that we will use to support applications for additional funding to conduct the larger study with an additional 220 trios.

Functional Schizophrenia/Psychosis Exosome Targets for Precision Medicine
  • Lead applicant: Lisiane Porciuncula (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)
  • Co-applicant(s): Stevens Rehen (Instituto D’Or de Ensino e Pesquisa, Brazil)
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This project focuses on the exomes originating from brain cells in individuals with schizophrenia, thus studying a unique aspect of the schizophrenia condition. These tiny particles contain vital molecules, and our goal is to uncover biomarkers linked to symptoms like psychosis. By identifying these markers, we aim to improve diagnosis and treatment decisions, especially for cases where standard medication proves ineffective. This study is a collaborative effort between lived experience advisors along with experts in mental health, clergy, and traditional healers, who will provide valuable insights and ensure a holistic and culturally respectful approach to the project design. By working collectively and using creative forms of participation such as storytelling, art, and music, we aim to create a comprehensive and empathetic approach to understanding and addressing schizophrenia, ultimately improving the lives of those affected.


Saliva and brain imaging biomarkers for long-COVID effects on mental health
  • Lead applicant: Marcela Adriana Brocco (Universidad Nacional de San Martín, Argentina)
  • Co-applicant(s): Martín Belzunce (ICIFI UNSAM-CONICET, Argentina)
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This research aims to develop a toolkit to identify mental health risks in long COVID-19 patients, a condition characterized by a sustained manifestation of symptoms that affect the daily functioning of individuals. Finding effective methods of evaluating these patients becomes urgent as a result of the lack of diagnostic tests, as well as the diversity of symptoms that hinder accurate diagnoses and suitable treatments. Therefore, a team of neuroscientists and engineers have come together to analyze saliva samples and brain images, with the intention of creating a non-invasive diagnostic tool that would identify patients at mental health risk. Building on an ongoing project, the proposed panel of biomarkers aims to not only detect at-risk persons but also assess the effectiveness of present treatments. This proposal is centered around the demands of a local community in San Martin city in Argentina, where long COVID care is limited.

Epigenetic modulation of resilience and risk for mental illness in Eastern Congo
  • Lead applicant: Daniel Okitundu (Université de Kinshasa, DRC)
  • Co-applicant(s): Eric Vilain (University of California – Irvine, USA)
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In the face of traumatic events, apart from lethal adaptation (suicide), it is considered that anxiety, depression, and psychosis are the three modes of regressive adaptation for which the mechanisms or epigenetic bases are not yet clearly established. Among people affected by traumatic events, anxiety, depression, and psychosis are the most common mental disorders, affecting a quarter of this population. The Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo has experienced a number of traumatic events, including wars over the last 20 years, rapes and domestic violence, epidemics of emerging diseases, and natural disasters such as the Nyiragongo volcanic eruption. Besides the current extensive knowledge on anxiety, depression, and psychosis, there are still gaps in knowledge regarding the mechanisms underlying resilience or the risk of being affected by these conditions. Our project will use innovative epigenetic approaches to fill this gap. This project will also help build capacity for mental health research in the Congo, a country that has been a theater of the abovementioned traumatic events for the last decades.

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