A Big Week for PsyLife

336437537It’s been quite a week for the PsyLife lab. First off, we’re delighted to say that one of our PhD students – Jen Dykxhoorn – successfully passed her PhD upgrade at UCL. While we weren’t surprised by this, it reflects a huge amount of work Jen has put in to her PhD on migration and psychosis in the first year. She’s currently writing up some results from her first study on this topic, which we’ll be submitting soon for publication. Jen has developed a great program of research as part of her PhD over the next 3 years, which we’re very excited about. Congrats Jen! Jen’s research is funded by Mental Health Research UK, with subsidiary funding from the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust.


We’re also delighted to announce that another PhD student – Jean Stafford – has joined the group to do a mixed epidemiological and psychological PhD on old age psychosis. She’ll be co-supervised by Dr James Kirkbride and Prof Rob Howard in the Division of Psychiatry. Jean spent 3-months with us last year as part of her MRC-sponsored first year PhD rotation scheme. Welcome along Jean!


We also welcome Dr Daria Monteforte from the University of Verona who joins us for a 6-month research visit. Daria is a psychiatrist specialising in psychosis. She’ll be gaining research experience during her visit with us. You can read more about what Daria’s up to here.


The PsyLife group would also like to pass on its congratulations to the MSc students who did student projects with us in 2015-16. All the projects we supervised addressed interesting epidemiological and mental health service issues with respect to psychosis, and we were impressed by the overall quality. Hopefully several of these will be submitted for peer-reviewed publication in the coming months. Dawid Gondek begins a PhD in longitudinal epidemiology of healthy ageing at the Institute of Education with Professor George Ploubidis, while Lucy Richardson has joined the REACH study with Professor Craig Morgan at the IoPPN as a Research Assistant. Mohammedi Abdolali continues his clinical work as a psychiatrist, armed with new insights from his MSc experiences. Finally, well done to Tom Steare, who continues his studies in mental health.


On a final note, a major publication from the PsyLife group has been published this week in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The paper investigates the epidemiology of first episode psychotic disorders, as seen through Early Intervention in Psychosis services in a rural population in England. Until now, very little epidemiological research has been conducted in EIP settings or in rural populations, and this study is an attempt to fill this gap. The paper has also been covered by Psychiatric News.

More Student Success in the PsyLife Lab

Bio picHere in the PsyLife lab we busy working away on lots of exciting hypotheses regarding how the social environment is linked to a greater risk of experiencing psychosis at a later time point.

Now, one of our first-year PhD students, Jen Dykxhoorn has achieved further recognition for her PhD which will focus on the role of social factors underlying the raised rates of psychotic disorders amongst migrants and their descendants. Jen has been awarded a prestigious UCL Overseas Research Scholarship in support of her PhD.

We’re delighted Jen’s research potential has been recognised at this early stage in her career, and we are excited about the progression she will make in her studies over the next three years. Jen’s PhD research is also supported by the Mental Health Research UK (MHRUK)’s John Grace QC Scholarship. Once again, congratulations to Jen, and stay tuned here for exciting findings from her and the rest of the group.

SIRS Travel Award for PsyLife PhD student!

SIRS meetingThis weekend will see the start of the eagerly awaited 5th Biennial Schizophrenia International Research Society (SIRS) conference, taking place in Florence, Italy. The conference will bring together international researchers from all areas of schizophrenia research to discuss the latest findings from the field. It promises to be an excellent meeting, and two members of the PsyLife group, Dr James Kirkrbide and PhD student Hannah Jongsma, will be presenting some of their findings.

We’re delighted to announce that Hannah has won a prestigious SIRS Young Investigator Travel Award to attend the conference. Congratulations! Hannah is in the second year of her PhD on the role of social and environmental risk factors in schizophrenia and other psychoses. To receive this international award is a major achievement and highlights Hannah’s dedication and growing expertise in the field. Hannah will be presenting her findings on cross-national variation in the incidence of psychotic disorders using data from the EU-GEI study. If you are at the conference, her talk will be on Tuesday 5th April, from 3.15pm, in the session on “Epidemiology: roles for environmental risk factors”. James will be presenting his work on age-at-migration in the same session. Do join us if you can.

See you in Florence!



Full list of PsyLife presentations at SIRS 2016

  • Hannah Jongsma: Incidence of psychotic disorders in England, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Brazil: Data from the EU-GEI study, Tues 5th April, 4.30pm-4.45pm: Symposium: Epidemiology: roles for environmental risk factors
  • James Kirkbride: Age-at-migration and risk of first episode psychosis in England: epidemiological evidence from the SEPEA study, Tues 5th April, 3.45-4pm, Symposium: Epidemiology: roles for environmental risk factors
  • James Kirkbride: (Poster S157): The Epidemiology of first episode psychosis in early intervention  in Psychosis services: findings from the SEPEA study, Poster session 1, Sunday 3rd April, 11am – 1pm.


Psychosis incidence in refugees to Sweden – cohort study of 1.3 million people

Working with colleagues at the Karolinska Institute we’ve shown that the risk of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders is raised in refugees to Sweden by up to 3 times that of the Swedish-born population. This risk, was on average, 66% higher than the risk in other (non-refugee) migrants from the same regions of origin. These findings suggest that the additional psychosocial adversities faced by refugee groups may be important in the aetiology of psychosis. You can see a video abstract highlighting the work here, or read the full article published in the BMJ. This work was jointly conducted by our group at UCL and the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Karolinska Institute.

Changing childhood environments & behavioural outcomes in adolescence


Does the neighbourhood you live in during childhood lead to differences in behavioural outcomes in adolescence? This was the central question asked in some new research we have conducted in collaboration with Prof. Ian Colman and colleagues from the APEAL Lab, University of Ottawa, Canada.

Using Canadian data from the National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth, on over 5000 children aged between 0-3 years in 1994-5, followed every two years until 12-15 years old, our research found that changes in the reported level of neighbourhood cohesion during childhood (as assessed by the primary caregiver, usually the mum or dad) led to changes in the risk of both pro-social and adverse behavioural outcomes later in adolescence.

Specifically, we found that children whose parents reported a decline in neighbourhood cohesion over time had a 67% greater risk of experiencing hyperactivity, while children whose neighbourhoods improved over time had lower risks of both hyperactivity and indirect aggression, compared with children who remained in stable cohesive neighbourhoods. Perceived improvements in neighbourhood cohesion during childhood were also associated with more pro-social behaviour in adolescence.

Our analyses tried to take into account as many alternative explanations for these findings as possible, including factors such as gender, family socioeconomic  status, neighbourhood deprivation, stressful life events, maternal depression & alcohol abuse. These factors did not explain the findings. Limitations of our study include the fact that we could not distinguish between children who moved to new neighbourhoods from children who remained in the same locality but whose neighbourhood environment changed over time.

Nevertheless, our research suggests that neighbourhood environments in childhood may shape future behavioural health outcomes and could support future interventions which aim to regenerate socially and economically deprived communities.

You can read the full article, published as a peer-reviewed FirstView paper in Psychological Medicine .

You can also read more about my group’s work on mental health and neighbourhoods .

Kingsbury M, Kirkbride JB, McMartin SE, Wickham ME, Weeks M, Colman I. Trajectories of childhood neighbourhood cohesion and adolescent mental health: evidence from a national Canadian cohort. Psychol Med. 2015 Jul 14;1–10.
Kirkbride JB, Stochl J, Zimbrón J, Crane CM, Metastasio A, Aguilar E, et al. Social and spatial heterogeneity in psychosis proneness in a multilevel case-prodrome-control study. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2014 Dec 31;
Kirkbride JB, Jones PB, Ullrich S, Coid JW. Social Deprivation, Inequality, and the Neighborhood-Level Incidence of Psychotic Syndromes in East London. Schizophrenia Bulletin [Internet]. 2014 Jan 1;40(1):169–80. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23236081
March D, Hatch SL, Morgan C, Kirkbride JB, Bresnahan M, Fearon P, et al. Psychosis and Place. Epidemiol Rev [Internet]. 2008 Jul 30;30(1):84–100. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18669521
Kirkbride JB, Morgan C, Fearon P, Dazzan P, Murray RM, Jones PB. Neighbourhood-level effects on psychoses: re-examining the role of context. Psychol Med [Internet]. 2007;37(10):1413–25. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17472758

3-year post-doc position in psychiatric epidemiology available in PsyLife group

PhD advertPosition now closed.

Post-doctoral Research Associate in Psychiatric Epidemiology

UCL Division: Division of Psychiatry

Specific Unit: PsyLife group

Grade: 7

Salary: £33,353 – £37,152 per annum (inclusive of London allowance)

Duration: Up to 3 years, subject to UCL probationary period

Application deadline: 17th May, 2015 

Application process: Via UCL main vacancies site Closed

Line Manager: Dr James Kirkbride (CI, PsyLife group)


Duties & Responsibilities

An enthusiastic, motivated individual is sought for this exciting early-career (postdoctoral) research opportunity in psychiatric epidemiology, available for a fixed period of 3 years in the PsyLife group, Division of Psychiatry at UCL. Our group’s interests include understanding the role of social and economic determinants on risk of psychotic disorders over the life course, with specific focus on societal or neighbourhood-level effects and risk amongst migrants and their descendants.

The post-holder will conduct research using two major epidemiological datasets (Swedish National Register data and the ALSPAC birth cohort) to investigate the social, spatial and life course epidemiology of psychotic disorders. There will be scope within the role for the post-holder to formulate their own research questions for analysis, concomitant with the interests of the PsyLife group. The post-holder will be expected to contribute to all major aspects of epidemiological research, including data preparation, study design, analysis of longitudinal and multilevel epidemiological data, critical interpretation of results, manuscript preparation and dissemination of research findings for peer-reviewed publication and translation to public, policy and clinical settings.

In addition to research duties, the post-holder will be expected to support junior colleagues in the PsyLife group and assist with some epidemiological teaching on our MScs in Clinical Mental Health and Mental Health Research.

The appointment is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society.


Key Requirements

The successful applicant will have a PhD in epidemiology, biostatistics or a closely related discipline, as well as experience in conducting statistical analyses of large, epidemiological datasets, and in working with longitudinal or multilevel data. The post-holder will have demonstrable evidence of publication in peer-reviewed journals; candidates with a research profile approaching the national level are particularly desirable. The successful applicant will be experienced in aspects of database management and have a thorough working knowledge of at least one major statistical package (i.e. Stata, M-Plus, R, SAS or equivalent).



About the Division of Psychiatry and UCL

UCL is the leading UK university in terms of research power in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and is an international leader in biomedical science. Our Division is in the Faculty of Brain Sciences which has the highest level of ISI citations in Europe, is ranked second worldwide in neuroscience & behaviour and first nationally according to research power (REF 2014). We have an outstanding, multidisciplinary environment for research study, with internationally renowned experts in areas relevant to this proposal, including psychiatric epidemiology (Lewis, Kirkbride, King, Johnson, Osborn), health services research (Killaspy, Johnson), social psychiatry (Bebbington) and biostatistics (Lewis, Kirkbride). We have strong links with other Divisions, including Epidemiology & Public Health, Primary Care & Population Health, the Institute for Clinical Neuroscience and the newly-formed Institute of Clinical Trials and Methodology. This will place the student at the heart of our multi-disciplinary approach to psychiatric epidemiology. We have an excellent Divisional track record in postgraduate training with approximately 35 new taught MSc students and 3 new PhD students per year. Our on-time completion rates average above 90%, well above the Research Councils’ projected figure for PhD completion at any time (80%).


Cartoons Kill! Death in children’s animated films

In somewhat of a departure to the research my group in UCL Psychiatry normally works on, I’ve just published a research paper in the BMJ’s 2014 Christmas edition on the occurrence of death featuring in children’s animated films (yes, cartoons!) compared with dramatic films for adults, jointly led with my colleague Dr Ian Colman over at the APEAL lab at the University of Ottawa.

Contains a scene young viewers may find disturbing

CARTOONS KILL: casualties in animated recreational theater in an objective observational new study of kids’ introduction to loss of life

What did we find? Well, the on-screen death of a main character, close friend or relative occurred 2.5 times more frequently in children’s animated films than dramatic films for adults. That’s quite something. Taking murder alone, this figure rose to 2.8 times excess in kids animated films, and parents were 5 times more likely to be the victim in children’s animated films compared with dramatic films for adults (perhaps this last one is less surprising, given parent’s are more likely to feature in films aimed at young children in the first place).

Hocus pocus?

By this point you might be asking yourself what could explain such shockingly high levels of death (including murder) in films aimed at young people. I hope you are! Surely this is some artefact of data manipulation, a selective bias of choosing the kids films and comparison films to load the dice to favour of this finding.

We don’t think so. Here’s a summary of how we approached the research: we took the all-time top grossing 45 animated films, indexed for inflation, and compared the amount, type and victims of on-screen death with the two top grossing dramatic films for adults in the same year of release as each of the animated films. Where we included more than one animated film from the same year of release, we included the next two grossing dramatic films for adults (i.e. 3rd & 4th) from that year.

A priori we established a few ground rules. First, we excluded sequels, since characters may have been more or less likely to have been killed off in the first film compared with the sequel (if you’re making Finding Nemo 2, you’re not going to be able to kill off Coral again). Second, we excluded animated films where the main characters were not human or animal. We couldn’t fully operationalise the concept of death in toys or machines, so we thought it would be safer to exclude those films. Third, from our comparison group of dramatic films for adults we excluded any films which received a genre tag (IMDB) of “action” or “adventure”. Why? Well many of these films are also marketed at children, think of Spiderman or Indiana Jones – and so might have biased the findings. We wanted our comparison group to be films primarily (and as far as possible) only intended for adult audiences. If you’re thinking this might have artificially excluded lots of violent movies, you can browse our full movie list here: it includes a lot of grisly movies: Pulp Fiction, The Departed, Road to Perdition, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Black Hawk Down, Titanic.

We then watched a lot of movies. Even with a thirteen-strong team of movie raters, fantastically coordinated by Drs Mila Kingsbury and Murray Weeks – that’s an average of 10 movies each. We watched until the first occurrence of an on-screen death of a main character, or a close friend or relative of a main character and noted down the time it occurred, how it happened and who died. By “on-screen” we meant clear evidence that a character who had been present in the film had died at a certain point, even if the director spared us the most gory stills. So the shooting of Bambi’s mother, implied by her sudden absence from the film following a panicked dash away from oncoming hunters and the sound of gunshots, counts. But the orphaned princess whose parents were absent from the very start of the film would not.

We then used an epidemiological technique called survival analysis to investigate statistically whether on-screen deaths occurred more frequently in animated films for kids versus dramatic films for adults. We took into account total runtime and year of release – two potential important confounders (alternative explanations) in the study.

What lies beneath

While our findings surprised us – over twice as as many deaths of on-screen main characters or their close friends or relatives in the animated film sample – there may be a number of reasons for this. We speculated that important plot devices (like killing of the parents quickly to allow the adventure to unfold) could – when handled sensitively – also provide an opportunity for children to be exposed to difficult or complex concepts like death in a safe, warm and loving family environment. Parents might want to be on hand to answer any questions their children have while watching the films. There are also great websites out there for the concerned parent, which get underneath the certification rating of a film, to highlight any particularly gruesome, gory or otherwise potentially inappropriate content for very young audiences. Try CommonSenseMedia.org as a starting point.

We love animated films and we hope they continue to provide hours and hours of pleasure to young and old audiences alike. We hope our paper highlights some of the more surprising issues that lie beneath the seemingly innocent adventures that Bambi, Nemo, Simba and a host of princesses, dwarves and  all 101 dalmations will embark on this Christmas. That’s all folks!


Nature, Royal Society podcasts on urban psychosis

©Cree GmbH. Licensed under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial, Attribution licence

©Cree GmbH. Licensed under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial, Attribution licence

Thanks to all of you who came along this week to hear my Cafe Scientifique talk at the Royal Society on “What causes psychosis?” The evening was a sell-out, and I’m sorry not everyone who wanted to come could get in. You can listen to my talk from the evening, plus the first half of questions from the audience. Feel free to drop me any comments or questions via this blog post. It was great to discuss my area of research – into how our environments may affect psychosis risk – with a wide range of people who came to the Royal Society event, who really set the evening alight. Thanks for all your contributions. Questions ranged from issues surrounding diagnosis of schizophrenia through to how the social environment led to disordered thoughts in the brain and whether or not delusions or hallucinations looked different in a brain scanner compared with normal thoughts.


An interview with me about my work has also featured on a Nature podcast, out today, which you can also listen to by clicking here.

James to speak at @royalsociety Cafe Scientifique

The Royal Society



This Monday, James will be discussing his research on the role the social environment plays in psychosis aetiology at the Royal Society’s latest Cafe Scientifique.

Event details

Psychosis is a broad and complex set of mental disorders, characterised by a loss of contact with reality. Ranging from short term hallucinations to severely disruptive disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the symptoms are wide-ranging and diverse. But how does our external environment affect the risk of experiencing a psychotic episode? And how can we study this within a population?

Dr James Kirkbride’s research seeks to answer these often complex and enigmatic questions. Join him for a discussion of the techniques that are helping to shape our understanding of psychosis and mental illness.

James appears on UCL Brain Sciences video

James has taken part in a new initiative for undergraduate students at UCL Brain Sciences to learn more about what research goes on in the Faculty. He was interviewed by Dr Jake Fairnie as part of the “Meet the Research” project. Full details of the project and recordings by other staff members are available on the Faculty website. You can watch James’ interview here (sorry about the moustache).