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RCSI MATTERS
M
ary Cannon, Associate Professor, the
Department of Psychiatry, RCSI, was
named among the leading influencers
in the sciences globally by The World's
Most Influential Scientific Minds 2014,
a report compiled by Thomson Reuters based on an
analysis of the most highly-cited researchers. She was
the only female of 11 Irish scientists included on the
list of 3,000. Professor Cannon spoke to RCSI Matters
about her reaction to the accolade and what it means
for her research
"I was delighted. It is important recognition for the
research I have been working on and I hope that it will
help me to continue, that it will have a positive impact in
terms of getting funding for the next stage of the work.
Recognition is nice but it is nice to get the means to
continue as well."
VITAL FIELD OF STUDY
Professor Cannon is a consultant psychiatrist at Beaumont
Hospital and splits her time between clinical and research
work. Her research involves exploring early childhood risk
factors in the later development of psychosis, or adult
psychiatric disorders, and she has been in the vanguard
of research in this vital field of study. It is something that
always intrigued her. "It is becoming more and more
evident that adult disorders, such as schizophrenia, anxiety
and depression, don't just happen `out of the blue' in
adulthood. They have their origins much earlier in life,"
she explains.
Professor Cannon started researching prenatal and early-
childhood developmental milestones, moving onto later
adolescence and the early 20s, known as `emerging
adulthood'. "I began to get more interested in later
childhood, and what indicators you might get that may
be more predictive. That has led me to do work on early-
childhood psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices."
Professor Cannon's research, aided by a Clinician Scientist
Award from the Health Research Board (HRB), found that
up to one-in-five young adolescents hear voices. It was an
area that hadn't been studied and young people weren't
talking about it. "Now we realise that these voices actually
put children at risk of quite serious psychiatric illnesses
later on in life. We are also looking at associated features
among young people who do hear voices, and how they
differ to their peers who don't.
"And we are also researching if they have increased rates
of other symptoms such as depression, anxiety disorders
and suicidal thoughts. We have been looking at the risk
factors and associated features."
THE CHALLENGES
Professor Cannon's aim is to be able to use this information
to predict which of the one-in-five who hears voices, may
need attention in their later years. One of the challenges to
this research, however, is securing the funding to continue.
"Especially during times of recession, one of the things that
tends to get cut is research. There is the view that research
is not essential to services, but it is really important that they
don't stop that funding now."
Another challenge is retaining young people for the study. A
group of 200 young people aged between 11 and 13 took
part in a study in 2006 are now emerging into adulthood.
"Now they are at a key period, going from late adolescence
to their early 20s, which is a crucial period in terms of
determining your risk of psychiatric disorder."
THE NEXT RESEARCH PHASE
"The next stage is to develop interventions not
medications but benign interventions that can be
administered to young people such as brief psychotherapy,
cognitive training, or computerised training, so once we
figure out what the predictive factors are we can help them."
Professor Cannon's ultimate goal is to devise a strategy to
deal with young people who are hearing voices, including
clear advice on what questions to ask them, and guidance on
whether they need further attention, such as an intervention
and monitoring.
She believes that funding for mental health services in
Ireland needs to be increased urgently. "Mental health
funding has decreased significantly. It is now less than five
per cent of the overall Budget spend. The mental health
services are very, very stretched in certain areas, and, in my
view, the people affected most are our young people. They
are falling into a service gap between an over-extended child
and adolescent mental health service and an adult mental
health service, which is also stretched.
"Just when a person needs the support, it is not there, or
it is fragmented. If young people come looking for help,
it should be there they are not going to keep looking.
The help they are offered needs to be straightforward and
immediate, so they are not on waiting lists."
IDENTIFYING THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST
The top researchers from around the globe featured in the
Thompson Reuters list have earned their distinction by
publishing the highest number of articles that rank among
those most frequently cited by fellow researchers. Dr Koon
Teo (Class of 1978) was also listed in 2014. For more on Dr
Teo, see page 21.
Influencing minds
RCSI Psychiatry researcher wins
global recognition
Professor Mary Cannon