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About SickKids

December 1, 2014

Beyond the stigma – SickKids Café Scientifique sheds light on the science behind mental health

About 1 in 5 individuals will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime. That works out to be roughly 7 million Canadians. Nearly half of all Canadians think the term mental illness is used as an excuse for bad behaviour and 27 per cent say they would be fearful to be around someone who suffers from serious mental illness.

How can something so common be so misunderstood?

This question sparked discussion as SickKids aimed to help people understand the science behind mental health at Café Scientifique. Guests packed into the Hard Rock Café Toronto on Wednesday Nov. 26 to take a closer look at factors that contribute to the complexity of mental illness with a panel of experts from the Centre for Brain and Mental Health.

picture of the crowd at cafe scientifique

Dr. Paul Arnold, Scientist, Genetics & Genome Biology and Staff Psychiatrist at SickKids kicked off the discussion with insight into the role of genetics in mental health. He explained that no single gene is the sole cause of a mental illness, and that genetic risk factors of mental illness often interact with environmental factors.

“If you have a genetic variant that can cause a mental illness and you grow up in an adverse environment versus a nurturing environment, you may have a much higher chance of developing a mental illness,” said Arnold.

This can be tricky for scientists, as it becomes difficult to distinguish between environmental factors and genetic factors contributing to mental health problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Environmental and genetic factors can be hard to separate in ADHD,” said Dr. Russell Schachar, Senior Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health and Staff Psychiatrist at SickKids.  “We are doing more research to improve our understanding of how these factors are expressed, as well as to develop a new generation of behavioural interventions to mitigate the impairments of ADHD.”

Dr. Freda Miller
, Senior Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health at SickKids highlighted the progress scientists have made in better understanding the biology of the brain. She emphasized that harnessing the power of stem cells in the brain has potential to offer promise for those suffering from mental illness.

“Stem cells in the hippocampus can make new nerve cells that are important for maintaining new memories and learning,” said Miller. “If we could encourage this process, then perhaps these stem cells could help repair the brain after injury and facilitate some recovery from mental illness such as PTSD and addiction.”

See caption.
Drs. Russell Schachar, Freda Miller and Paul Arnold at SickKids Cafe Scientifique

Several thought-provoking questions emerged from the audience as many were eager to discuss ways to fight stigma around mental illness and build capacity in this area of health care and research. Panelists agreed that while tremendous progress has been made, there is a need for a more collaborative approach.

“The study of the brain is a huge area,” said Miller. “It is the most complex organ we have and we study it from many different perspectives. Moving forward, the hope is that we can have people from different disciplines in a coordinated system that will lead to better outcomes. ”

SickKids Café Scientifique is supported by the SickKids Research Institute, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.  Look out for the next Café Scientifique event by checking the SickKids events calendar!