ENVIRONMENTAL project: deciphering the environmental factors linked to mental disorders
Determining the influence of global environmental challenges in the field of brain and mental health is the main objective of the ENVIRONMENTAL PROJECT. This initiative is funded by the European Union under the Horizon Europe program, which will deploy an international consortium with the participation of the University of Barcelona, and will be led by Professor Gunter Schumann, Head of the Center for Population Neuroscience and precision. Medicine (PONS) and Fudan University (Shanghai).
The project, which will end in May 2027, will study the impacts of climate, pollution, urbanity, regional socio-economic conditions and the COVID-19 pandemic on brain health, and decipher their biological mechanisms. underlyings. The research team will analyze data from more than one million European citizens and patients to uncover brain mechanisms related to environmental factors that lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress and substance abuse.
As Professor Gunter Schumann points out, “a better understanding of environmental factors and their corresponding genetic modulation responsible for specific pathological mechanisms will help estimate individual risk levels and facilitate the treatment of environmentally related mental illnesses.”
Data acquired from remote sensing satellites, climate models, atmospheric measurements, public resources and digital health applications will be linked to citizen and patient data using complex intelligence-based computer models to demonstrate the effect of environmental events on brain structure and function. Comprehensive analyzes using omics techniques, 3D brain organoids and virtual brain simulations will complement the analyzes to identify the underlying molecular mechanisms.
Once the most relevant molecular pathways have been identified, the team will begin to screen pharmacological compounds to identify molecules that interact with pathogenic molecules, and thus improve drug discovery.
At the same time, pioneering digital health strategies using virtual reality to improve the response of people at risk of environment-related mental illnesses will also be put in place. Participants will be exposed to different psychosocial environmental scenarios (noise, crowded spaces, etc.) and trained to deal with these situations; they will also have access to a virtual therapist who will guide them to overcome anxieties and depression. “There is more than 30 years of evidence showing that people tend to react realistically to situations and events in immersive virtual reality,” says Professor Mel Slater, director of the Event Lab Research Group and member of the Faculty of Psychology and Institute of Neuroscience (NeuroUB) from the UB.
“One of the most important areas of application has been mental health. As part of the environMENTAL project, we will create scenarios that use the power of virtual reality to go beyond what is possible in reality and lead to new ideas and potentially positive outcomes for participants and, in ultimately, the patients. This objective will be linked to digital mental health assessments and, in this regard, a set of neuropsychological tests will be developed alongside a smartphone application to determine health problems in combination with environmental factors of daily life. This will be based on the principles of citizen science, which allow for greater participation and interaction within the community.
With this innovative and interdisciplinary approach, environMENTAL will bring together the ideas and expertise of neuroscientists, psychiatrists, geoscientists, climatologists, psychologists, epidemiologists, anthropologists, computer scientists and experts in digital interventions, as well as patient associations and other sectors outside from academia.
The project also involves other internationally renowned teams from the University Hospital of Bonn, the Charité Hospital and the Free University of Berlin (Germany); the Austrian Institute of Science and Technology; the University of Southern California and the Georgia State University Research Foundation (USA); King’s College London and the University of Aix-Marseille (France), among others.