£35.4m to transform mental and brain health care across the UK – and the world

Innovative treatments and transformative therapies in brain health are on the horizon thanks to a £35.4 million award to the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre.

The award, announced on Friday, October 14, is part of a package of funding from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) for Biomedical Research Centres (BRC) in a competitive process involving international review.

The Oxford Health BRC, one of only two centres in the country currently wholly dedicated to mental health, was successful in securing funding for 11 themes of research.

Together with our sister centre, the NIHR Oxford BRC, Oxford attracted a £122m share of the £790m awards pot – a massive boost for research in the city and far beyond.

Already established as a centre of excellence in delivering cutting edge treatments in mental health and dementia, the Oxford Health BRC will now set its sights on delivering a breadth of life-changing innovations in brain health over a five-year period starting on December 1, 2022.

Theme areas, including depression therapeutics, mental health in development with a focus on children and young people, psychological treatments and brain technologies can now be advanced by leading scientists, clinicians and academics who are linked via a network of centres of excellence in brain health.

These include NHS organisations and universities – see list below – complemented by collaborations around the globe. Together they will make it possible to directly translate research into potential new treatments, diagnostic tests and medical technologies for NHS patients.

Professor John Geddes, Director of the NIHR Oxford Health BRC and Director of the Translational Research Collaboration in Mental Health (TRC-MH), said:

“The successful BRC application was a result of a huge amount of work involving patients and public, researchers and clinicians across Oxford and our partners across the country.

“It builds on the success of the current centre which has, over the past five years, delivered new psychological and digital

treatments, advances in drug discovery and new ways of integrating research and clinical care.

“The new award now provides us with a wonderful opportunity to transform care for mental and brain health and wellbeing across the whole country and, actually, the world. We can now translate the best research from UK biomedical science, data science and engineering, social science and arts and the humanities for the benefit of clinical care and population health.

“We are enormously grateful to the NIHR and the International Panel for both understanding and generously supporting our ambitious plans and vision. We are now looking forward to co-designing with patients and the public powerful new approaches that can be tested, refined and then implemented across the NHS and beyond.”

Dr Nick Broughton, former Chief Executive of OHFT, said:

“I am absolutely delighted that the NIHR has supported our bid by funding projects that aim to improve mental health care and treatment. Today’s research is tomorrow’s care, and this money will enable us to make considerable strides forward with our ambitious programme across the country.

“Our current programme of six scientific themes in mental health research, coupled with two in training and patient and public involvement, has already yielded benefits way beyond Oxford; our work with virtual reality treatments for patients with psychosis being a prime example.

“With 11 themes now part of the BRC, we will be able to collaborate with many more colleagues in other towns and cities, bringing centres of excellence together in a formidable national network. This vital research infrastructure will work to improve mental health care and treatments in the future.”

What are the new Oxford Health BRC themes?

The 11 themes all have extensive scientific collaborations between Oxford Health BRC and academic and NHS site across the country. They are

  • Better Sleep (with the University of Surrey) will exploit new sleep and circadian science to develop, test, and translate innovations to improve health.
  • Brain Technologies (Birmingham and the University of Surrey) will deliver brain technologies for use in psychological, psychiatric and brain disorders.
  • Data Science will deliver tools to personalise care of individual patients with mental health disorders by combining routine clinical and research data
  • Dementia will preserve cognitive health and prevent cognitive decline by refining cognitive, imaging and blood-based biomarkers at-scale in the general population and in people experiencing memory problems.
  • Depression Therapeutics (Birmingham) will use human neurocognitive models to help identify and develop new and improved treatments for depression
  •  Flourishing and Wellbeing (Birmingham and Brighton) will enable flourishing initiatives and interventions for patients and non-patients, delivered in spaces beyond the clinic.
  •  Mental Health in Development (Universities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Oxford Brookes and Reading, with Berkshire Healthcare Foundation Trust) will develop targeted, effective, and accessible mental health interventions that meet the needs of diverse children and young people.
  •  Molecular targets (Birmingham) will create a pipeline to translate and back-translate between discovery neuroscience and the clinic, to identify and test new therapeutic targets.
  •  Pain will identify and target chronic pain brain-based mechanisms
  •  Preventing multiple morbidities (Universities of Liverpool, Oxford Brookes, and Sheffield with Sheffield Health & Social Care NHS FT) in whole and high-risk populations will improve population health, reduce inequalities by co-developing and testing population interventions to prevent non-communicable disease and individual interventions for people with mental illness at greatest need.
  • Psychological Treatments (national reach) will develop new effective and efficient psychological interventions that precisely target core psychological mechanism

What our partners say

University of Birmingham

Professor Matthew Broome, Director of the Institute for Mental Health and Professor of Psychiatry and Youth Mental Health said:

“We are delighted that the University of Birmingham, and the city’s Mental Health Trusts, Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust and Birmingham and Solihull NHS Foundation Trust, are key partners in the Oxford Health BRC.  Birmingham is a young and diverse city with high levels of deprivation and mental health morbidity.  This important investment will support discovery science in emerging and established mental illness, offer our population the benefits of new therapeutic advances for depression and psychosis, and lead the development of a clinical data analysis pipeline for new brain imaging technologies. This collective expertise will help improve our mechanistic understanding of health and illness, and will prioritise the experiences of young people throughout, working closely with them and their communities to support their flourishing and wellbeing.”

Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust

Professor Rachel Upthegrove, Professor of Psychiatry and Youth Mental Health and Consultant Psychiatrist said:

“This is excellent news for young people and the mental health services in Birmingham and Solihull that support them including Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, a key partner in the Oxford Health BRC.

“We are conducting important cutting-edge mental health research, through our nationally unique Forward Thinking Birmingham youth mental health partnership. This includes our internationally leading Early Intervention in Psychosis service that has been pioneering treatment for early stages of psychosis for many years. This new investment will further help turn exciting research into new, better targeted treatments for young people.”

Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust

Professor Alex Copello, Associate Director for Research and Dr Fabida Aria, Executive Medical Director, said:

“Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust has a history of leading new developments and services in the field of mental health and are thrilled to be part of the extended Oxford BRC (Biomedical Research Centre).  This collaborative partnership will allow our trust to further our work in mood disorders (depression) research, integrating new technologies and treatments to provide our patients with the best evidence based clinical care. We are delighted to be part of this important initiative”

University of Sheffield and Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust

Dr Mike Hunter, Medical Director, Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust said:

“I’m delighted that this important research into mental health has been supported, and we’re really pleased to be partnering with the University of Oxford. The breadth of themes to be studied over the next five years speaks to the significant scope of the work. Here at SHSC, we are looking forward to seeing the benefits to service users, carers and staff first hand.”

Professor Scott Weich, Professor of Mental Health at the School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield, said:

“We’re excited to be working with colleagues from Oxford and elsewhere to develop new and innovative ways of helping those living with serious mental illness. This has come about through close partnership working between University and Trust and provides us with a great opportunity to develop new treatments where they are most needed.”

University of Reading

Professor Stella Chan said:

“We are absolutely delighted to hear that the Oxford Health BRC has received funding from the NIHR to continue our work. It is in this transformational, interdisciplinary space that research findings evolve into treatments and patients benefit. Mental ill health is a growing issue in the UK.

“Alongside our unique research-led Anxiety and Depression in Young People Clinic, Charlie Waller Institute, and Reading Resilience Network, we hope to further the reach and accelerate impact of the work of the Oxford Health BRC, through our expertise and networks across NHS and third sector services.”

Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

Kate Penhaligon, Head of Research and Development, said:

“Berkshire Healthcare is excited to collaborate with Oxford and the University of Reading in realising the vision of the BRC. As a global Digital Exemplar we are thrilled to contribute to innovative research that will improve patient outcomes.”

University of Surrey

Professor Paul Townsend, Pro- Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, said:

“I am extremely proud of our involvement in this partnership, which will showcase the strength of our Surrey research in brain disorders, maths, sleep and circadian rhythms. Collaboration amongst the research community is key to improving our future health, and I look forward to seeing the results from this innovative partnership.”

University of Brighton

Professor Angie Hart, Director of the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice, at University of Brighton, said:

“What a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with great scholars and community experts on research related to complex mental health problems. Finding creative ways to support people facing the most complex challenges in life to flourish is what our team are most excited about. The Social Enterprise Boingboing is part of our team. Their community-based researchers have lived experience of complex life challenges so are the ideal people to work alongside academics as co-researchers.”

University of Liverpool

Professor Iain Buchan, Associate Pro Vice Chancellor for Innovation at the University of Liverpool, said:

“The University of Liverpool is pleased to partner with Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust in providing the NIHR Oxford Brain Health Biomedical Research Centre with a ‘Connected Mental Health’ innovation system, focusing population health, data, neuro and behavioural sciences on large-scale mechanistic research and early-stage trials, grounded in the connections of service-users to their communities and care-settings.”

He added:

“The University will also align other research to enrich brain health discovery science, including the a new birth cohort study, Children Growing Up in Liverpool, supported by the Wellcome Trust, which will investigate the effects of bio-psycho-social adversity on child development, including mental health, in a city where 28% of children are born into poverty.”

Oxford Brookes University

Professor Eila Watson, Deputy Director, Oxford Institute of Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Research, said:

“We are delighted to be a partner in this award which provides a really fantastic opportunity to develop innovative new approaches to care for mental and brain health, and to improve psychological wellbeing.  The award will facilitate strengthening of multi-disciplinary partnerships between the Trusts and Universities, and will also play a vital role in the continuing expansion of research capacity and capability.”

Published: 14 October 2022
Last reviewed: 4 January, 2024