Researcher interview-Klaus P. Ebmeier
Lifebrain researcher Klaus Ebmeier at the University of Oxford, is working on the effect of depression on both cardiovascular and cognitive health, and has found a link between depression, brain health and heart health. In a recent interview, he explains; “Everything that helps keep the heart healthy seems beneficial to brain health later in life, so keeping your heart and circulation system healthy has multiple benefits.”
Professor and Foundation Chair of Old Age Psychiatry Klaus Ebmeier, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division
What are you working on right now in Lifebrain?
Apart from my administrative tasks, I am particularly interested in depression in older age. In many of our research cohorts, we have data over longer time periods that give us a life-course history of depressive symptoms. While depression in younger people seems to be related to an underlying vulnerability and disruptive life events and chronic difficulties, older people have often negotiated life without any depressive spells and have ‘proven’ their resilience. Because of this, I want to look at potential changes in vulnerability with aging, which may be the same as those responsible for greater risks of memory changes, strokes, and early death. If this is the case, measures can be found to prevent some of the late life depressive episodes by reducing risk in mid-life.
What was your motivation for getting involved in Lifebrain?
Many European researchers have tried to unravel the causes of brain changes during the lifetime of people by collecting large numbers of scans with measuring lifestyles, social circumstances, and general risk factors. This has allowed us to pool results to identify relatively small effects with bigger numbers of participants and make our analyses more representative for the population of the EU.
What do you find most challenging?
In investigations of brain health we can choose between many different questionnaires, scanners, diagnostic criteria, and sources of recruitment of participants. To compare and pool results between studies, these methods must be harmonized, which means examining in detail how different methods influence results. One of the outcomes of the project is to identify research protocols that are best comparable between countries and researchers’ projects to help future collaborative research.
What have you found out so far?
In one of the studies involved, we have been able to show that there is a small subgroup in one cohort, who kept well until roughly 60 years of age and then developed depressive symptoms for the first time in life. Compared to all the other subgroups (never depressed, early or mid-life depression or chronically depressed) they had a greater cardio-vascular risk in mid-life, had a greater risk of brain anomalies typically associated with blood vessel disease, and had a greater reduction in memory function after two years’ follow-up.
How can these findings benefit people or society?
This finding, if confirmed in the larger European sample of Lifebrain, gives an additional motivation to keep fit in middle life, because this would protect against heart disease, stroke, later dementia, and late life depression.
What can people do for their brain health?
Everything that helps keep the heart healthy seems beneficial to brain health later in life, so keeping your heart and circulation system healthy has multiple benefits.
In your opinion, what is the most burning scientific question in our times (in your field of brain research?)
The most effective treatments in medicine rely on harnessing the body’s ability to self-heal and to compensate for possible damage. This is true for surgery, where the surgeon inflicts a wound on the body and then relies on the body to heal itself. It is true for vaccinations, where substances are introduced into the body, so that it can produce antibodies and other responses to microbes that can be recognized after vaccination and can be defeated by the body’s defenses. Another important question is how we can support the body to compensate for damage to the brain, by supporting brain repair or by helping the brain to develop alternative strategies to compensate for damage or illness.
Where will this research take you next?
Examining all Lifebrain participants may help us finding characteristics in lifestyle and risk that are universal in Europe, but maybe also identify those that are specific to regions, and that may be helpful in identifying environmentally beneficial interventions Europe-wide.