Joëlle Rüegg is a professor in environmental toxicology at Uppsala University, Sweden, and coordinator of Re-MEND. Her research focuses on endocrine disruptors and their impact on brain function and development. Prof. Rüegg is driven by working on issues that have a major societal impact. She is hopeful that Re-MEND will be able to unveil critical factors that influence a person’s mental health and their susceptibility to illness.
What is the main aim of Re-MEND?
“Healthcare today is largely focused on treating symptoms, not preventing them. So Re-MEND takes a different approach. We are interested in what makes mental illness happen and how to prevent that. “ Prof. Rüegg explains.
“The main aim of our research is to better understand how genes and environment interact and how that is manifested in an individual's psychological well-being. Society needs to become better at prevention. We need to advance our knowledge on mental health and illness, especially understanding the underlying biological factors,” she says.
What are critical life stages?
“There are few stages in life that are more sensitive than others. This includes periods when hormone signalling is particularly active. In RE-MEND, mental health is studied in relation to four life stages: early life, puberty, the period around childbirth and ageing. These sensitive life stages can lay the foundations for developing or not developing mental illness later in life. Some individuals are more vulnerable and susceptible to mental illness than others. We aim to get a better understanding of why that is so and also learn how to increase resilience, as this is a complex picture,” adds Prof. Rüegg.
How do you study this?
“Re-MEND integrates data from large population-based studies and experimental studies. There simply does not exist a population study that covers a whole life course. Hence, we combine several different studies to analyse all four life stages and try to identify key environmental factors that influence brain development and function, such as stress, food/diet and chemicals that we are exposed to. This is translated then into an experimental design as the project includes also many experimental studies. To research behavioural effects, the research team will conduct experiments on mice whereas with the help of brain organoids, i.e. cell models that mimic brain development in 3D, it is possible to study factors that influence vulnerability and resilience in early development. The project also incorporates machine learning and artificial intelligence to integrate and exploit the vast amount of data,” she explains.
How about reducing stigma around mental illnesses?
“One way to reduce stigma is understanding better underlying biological explanations and how we also communicate about these explanations as well as in general about mental health and illness. One of the focus areas in Re-MEND is the communication sciences to study effective ways of communication as well as engage with stakeholders and patients to understand multiple perspectives and perceptions on the issue,” Prof. Rüegg says.
“I believe collaboration is the key, across disciplines and across different actors in society, as mental health is affected by a variety of factors, and we need to work together to reverse the current development of rising mental health problems,” she summarises.