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Dr Robb Rutledge awarded MRC Career Development Award to study depression

1 September 2016

Robb Rutledge

We are delighted to announce that Dr Robb Rutledge (UCL Institute of Neurology and Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research) has been awarded an MRC Career Development Award. This prestigious 5-year fellowship supports talented post-doctoral researchers to lead their own research plans and establish their own research team to make the transition from post-doctoral researcher to independent investigator.

Dr Rutledge is a cognitive and computational neuroscientist based at the UCL Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research. His research focuses on how we make decisions and how our happiness depends on the outcome of those decisions. The MRC Career Development Award will support Dr Rutledge’s research on the relationship between mood and behaviour in depressed individuals. Collaborators for this research include Professor Peter Dayan (UCL Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit) and Dr Roland Zahn (King’s College London).

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting more than 300 million people. Unfortunately, current antidepressant treatments do not help many of those who suffer from depression. It is now accepted that depression can result from a variety of different sources, much like a cough can have many different underlying causes. There is at present no reliable way for a psychiatrist to know which treatment is likely to be most effective for helping a particular depressed individual. Furthermore, researchers have not yet managed to provide a clear picture of what determines if, and when, an individual’s mood will worsen and what happens in the brain when mood changes. This lack of understanding of the determinants of mood also makes it difficult to develop new treatments for mood disorders like depression.

Dr Rutledge recently showed that it is possible to predict momentary subjective states like happiness. In 2014, his team published a report showing that happiness depends not on how well people are doing, but on whether they are doing better than expected. This result was replicated on a large scale using a smartphone app with over 18,000 users worldwide. His research has also demonstrated that happiness can be manipulated with dopaminergic drugs and related to neural activity in dopamine projection areas measured with functional neuroimaging.

Research supported by the MRC Career Development Award will ask if this improved understanding of mood can be used to better understand depression. The research will examine the neural circuits that determine mood in depressed individuals. It will also use smartphones to longitudinally test previously depressed individuals and to try to predict which individuals are most likely to become depressed again.

“It is an exciting time to be working on mental health research and in the emerging field of computational psychiatry. My hope is that this research expands our knowledge of the neural circuits that determine mood, and gives us new insights into the causes of depression.” Dr Robb Rutledge, UCL Institute of Neurology

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