Prof.dr. Henning Tiemeier (Erasmus MC) has been awarded a Vici grant for his research on adolescent depression: one and a half million euros to develop his own innovative research line for the next five years. We called him to congratulate him - and, of course, ask him what he will do with that money.
Congratulations! Did you expect to be among the few who receive the Vici grant?
I was optimistic that I would stand a good chance, but it’s always a surprise.
Of course we’re curious about what you will do with the money. Can you tell us something about your research?
The research project is called ‘How we shape our children’s brains’, and it’s based on the idea that children experience all kinds of things that change their brain development – from before they are born until their adolescence. And that these changes can make them vulnerable for psychological problems, depression in particular. If things like early emotional troubles, anxiety issues and social withdrawal influence brain development, it means behavior determines how the brain develops.
We will study between 4.000 and 5.000 children that participate in the Generation R-project [a prospective, population based cohort study that is being carried out in Rotterdam]. Among the group are both children who’ve had negative experiences, such as divorce, neglect or harsh parenting, and children who have not. Through comparing multiple brain scans, we can see whether their brains develop differently between their 8th and 14th year of life.
The grant is meant for innovative research. What’s innovative about your approach?
Maybe you heard about the book ‘Wij zijn ons brein’ (We are our Brains) by Dick Swaab. It’s a rather good book, but all the emphasis is on how our behavior is influenced by our brains. That’s one way to look at it, but you can also realize that what you experience also influences your brains. We’re basically turning it around: the biology of adolescent depression is not just the biology of genes and brains, but also of the things you experience. That kind of research is more difficult, because you’ll have to see how brains change through studying small effects in a large number of people.
Why is this research important and to whom?
It’s important because it’s fundamental research – we embed neuroscience in population science to see how the environment influences brains and how mental illnesses come into being. And I hope it will bring momentum to people in mental health care who believe we need to pay more serious attention to environmental factors when monitoring young children – such as upbringing. The past years there’s been a cutback on child psychiatry and a lot of it has ended up with the municipalities. This research could help provide support for a change, stop cutting back on child psychiatry or, better even, invest more in children with problems.
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