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Elizabeth Tunbridge

B.Sc. M.Sc. D.Phil.

Royal Society Research Fellow

  • Associate Professor
  • Supernumerary Fellow, University College

Understanding links between genes and brain dysfunction in psychiatric illness

Research Summary

My group's research aims to understand how individual genes impact on the complex brain functions that are altered in psychiatric disorders.  I believe that understanding these links will help to explain why some people respond well to treatments, whilst others do not, and will ultimately lead to new and improved therapies. 

In order to do this I use a wide range of experimental techniques, which allows me to study the function of these genes at all levels - from individual cells to the whole person.  In order to achieve this, I collaborate with many other researchers within the Department, elsewhere in Oxford, and internationally. 

Most of my group’s research to date has focussed on the COMT gene.  COMT influences the function of dopamine, a chemical messenger which is implicated in a number of psychiatric disorders and is critical to many different aspects of brain function in healthy people. We have shown that a drug that inhibits COMT increases dopamine levels in the brain and improves memory and attention.  Most recently, we showed that a person’s genetic make-up determines whether the drug will improve memory or not.  These findings show that inhibiting COMT could be beneficial for disorders in which patients suffer from problems with memory and attention, such as schizophrenia.  They also emphasise that genetic factors can dramatically influence the response to a drug and suggest that in the future successful therapies may need to take a person’s individual genetic make-up into account. We are extending these findings by investigating COMT’s impact on brain functions beyond memory and attention, looking in particular their effect on people’s emotions and responses to rewards.  In addition, we are also investigating how these links are altered by environmental factors, such as exposure to cannabis and stress. 

In recent years, large-scale genetics studies have identified regions of the genome that are associated with risk for developing psychiatric disorders. We have begun to investigate the mechanisms by which these genomic regions are associated with psychiatric disorders; the voltage-gated calcium channel genes are a particular current focus.

We hope that by understanding the links between genes and psychiatric disorders we will not only shed light on the biological basis of these illnesses, but will also identify new treatment targets. My long-term goal is to use this knowledge to improve the lives of patients living with psychiatric disorders.

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Key Publications


Recent Publications

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