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Southampton researchers join forces to support the mental health of teenagers with autism



A new study will develop an app to support young people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to manage their own mental health.


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


A €4.3 million grant from the European Commission's Horizon Europe programme and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will fund a new study. This will assess how factors in a young person’s environment affect their mental health.


These factors include diet, sleep pattern, physical activity, and exposure to stress and anxiety. The study also aims to identify ways they can manage these.


Developing an app to help


The team will develop app known as an automated Personal Digital Nurse (PDN). This will support the individual to manage their own health.


The app will also be integrated with care services, including SENCO at school and community clinics. This will allow them to access personalised, flexible services when they need it.

More than 400 teenagers, aged between 11 and 14 years old, will take part for nine months in the UK, Republic of Ireland and Romania.


Researchers from many different specialisms


The study is known as ETHEREAL. It will bring together researchers from many different specialisms. These include medicine, computer science, psychology, biology and business. They will work with research teams and autism charities across the three countries.


Prof Jonathan Swann is Professor of Biomolecular Medicine and a researcher at the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC). He will work to understand the genetic and biochemical mechanisms underlying ASDs. He aims to identify biomarkers that can predict the start and progression of mental health outcomes.


His team will work with Prof Karen Lillycrop, Professor of Epigenetics and a researcher at the BRC. Her team will study the participant’s epigenetics - how a person’s environment affects their how their genes work, for example by switching them ‘on’ or ‘off’. They aim to identify epigenetic ‘signatures’ associated with ASDs and mental health status.


Prof Lillycrop, said: ‘The grant will allow us, for the first time, to characterise epigenetic changes over time with mental health status and determine the drivers of such changes.”

Prof Swann said: “This exciting multidisciplinary project will combine multi-omics, mathematics, and engineering expertise from across the University. It aims 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. This will allow individuals living with autism to self-control the factors having a negative impact on their mental health.”

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