Identifying biological mechanisms behind mental illness

Sophie Erhardt researches biological mechanisms behind mental illness. With her discovery that patients with schizophrenia have elevated levels of kynurenic acid in the brain, she has laid the foundations of a scientific field that has attracted a great many research groups around the world.

Sophie Erhardt

Professor of Experimental Psychiatry at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology

portrait of Sophie Erhardt
Professor Sophie Erhardt. Photo: Ulf Sirborn

Sophie Erhardt’s aim is to help improve the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness by identifying the biological mechanisms behind diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and depression as well as symptoms such as suicidal thoughts.

“Current practice is to diagnose mental illness wholly on the basis of the patient’s own narrative and behaviour – this is difficult to do and we know it can be misleading,” says Professor Erhardt.

“Just imagine if simple blood tests could help doctors assess things like the risk of suicide!”

In the summer of 2016, Professor Erhardt and her colleagues in Sweden, the USA and Australia published a discovery that could bring them a step closer to this ambition. The paper revealed a clear correlation between the risk of suicide and levels of two substances in the blood.

Elevated levels of kynurenic acid

The dominant focus of Professor Erhardt’s research is, however, the link between schizophrenia and elevated levels of kynurenic acid in the brain – something that she started to study as a doctoral student. Back then, the question interested only a handful of scientists, but her discoveries have attracted a great many other research groups around the world to the field.

“Our and other groups’ research has now shown that a causal relationship is very likely, and the field has attracted the attention of drugs companies,” she says. “Inhibitors of the synthesis of kynurenic acid have given promising results in animal studies.”

Professor Erhardt herself will be devoting much of her own research to the underlying causes of raised kynurenic acid levels.

“We’ve found very interesting links with immunological activation,” she says.

Text: Anders Nilsson, first published in the booklet 'From Cell to Society 2016'.

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