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The University of Southampton

Interdisciplinary study to support the mental health of adolescents living with autism

Published: 13 February 2023
letters spelling autism

Researchers from the Faculty of Medicine will take part in an interdisciplinary study to develop a new app to support young people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to manage their own mental health.

Around seven out of 10 autistic people will experience a mental health condition, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

This new Southampton study, funded by a €4.3 million grant from European Commission's Horizon Europe programme and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will assess how different factors in a young person’s environment, such as diet, sleep pattern, physical activity, exposure to stress and anxiety, impact their mental health and identify ways to manage it.

The team will develop an app (an automated Personal Digital Nurse (PDN) app) that will provide support interventions for the individual to manage their own health. The app will also be integrated with care services including, SENCO at school and community clinics allowing them to access personalised, flexible service at the point-of-need.  

The project, entitled the ETHEREAL research programme, involves researchers from Medicine, ECS, Psychology, Biological Sciences and the Southampton Business School.

More than 400 adolescents aged between 11 and 14 years old will be recruited in the project in the UK, Republic of Ireland and Romania and each adolescent will be followed up for nine months to collect the relevant data.

Professor Brigitte Vollmer, a Paediatric and Developmental Neurologist at the University of Southampton, said: “Autism is not a mental health disorder, but autistic people can have good and bad mental health like everyone else. However, for some autistic people, managing their mental health can be very challenging as they may have trouble expressing how they feel or not be able to process what they’re experiencing.

“Using the expertise across our university, this exciting and unique interdisciplinary project will develop an easy-to-use app that will help autistic people to independently manage their mental health.”

Jonathan Swann, Professor of Biomolecular Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine and the Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, will work to understand the genetic and biochemical mechanisms underlying ASDs and identify biomarkers that can predict the progression/onset of mental health outcomes. His team will work with Professor Karen Lillycrop’s team who will be studying the participant’s epigenetics so they can match genome-epigenome-metabolite signatures associated with ASDs and mental health status.

Professor Swann said: “This exciting multidisciplinary project will combine multi-omics, mathematics, and engineering expertise from across the University to understand complex gene-environment interactions and how they contribute to autism spectrum disorders and mental health outcomes. Our goal is to incorporate this knowledge into a mobile app that will allow individuals living with autism to self-control the factors having a negative impact on their mental health.”

Professor Karen Lillycrop, Professor of Epigenetics in Biological Sciences, said: ‘The grant will allow us for the first time to characterise epigenetics changes over time with mental health status and determine the drivers of such changes.”

Professor James Batchelor, Director of the Clinical Informatics Unit, added: “I am excited to be involved this grant which is bringing together so many international partners and the opportunity for medicine to work in a multidisciplinary way with colleagues across the university in particular, Professor Koushik Maharatna form ECS.”

Professor Koushik Maharatna, Chair in Signal Processing System Design at ECS, is the PI of the project and said: “ETHEREAL will provide a unique solution for individuals living with ASD to live independently and prevent mental illness and non-communicable chronic diseases that can be associated with ASD. It demonstrates the power of the University's strategy of multidisciplinary research to bring together world-leading researchers from across the different schools to solve a socio-economic problem that needs an urgent solution.”

Other project partners are:

  • University College Cork (Ireland)
  • Microlink PC (UK), Orthokey (Italy)
  • Engineering Group (Italy)
  • University Carol Davlina (Romania)

The project also involves the following autism charities and research centres: 

  • Autism Hampshire (UK)
  • Asociatia Romana De Terapii In Autism si ADHD (Romania)
  • INFANT (Republic of Ireland) 
  • Solent NHS Trust Child Health Services

ETHEREAL is funded by the European Commission's Horizon Europe programme and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).



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