Mental illness and addiction are growing problems the world over. Is there a way to halt this development? Linköping University is doing its part with a major new initiative.
After eleven successful years as a researcher in the United States, Markus Heilig is returning to Sweden. With major funding from the Swedish Research Council, Linköping University and Region Östergötland he is building a centre for neuroscientific research.

There has been a lot of running around, but all the pieces are now in place, with one exception: a good home for his family. “Maybe someone has a tent they could lend us,” he asks when some future colleagues say hello.

They have just been listening to his lecture on alcohol dependency and individualised treatment, the keynote lecture at the annual research symposium held by the postgraduate section of the student union Domfil. For Professor Heilig, it is a part of a week long stint as visiting professor; there is still a while to go before his move from NIH, the National Institutes of Health, located outside Washington DC.

“I will miss the city and my work in a great many ways. DC is a fantastic metropolis and NIH is a place unlike anywhere else on earth, where you can do absolutely anything. But I have been there over a decade; I’ve learned a great deal and now it’s time to move on. The challenge is to boost psychiatry and dependency research and increase the attractiveness of psychiatry.”

In his role as Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Johan D. Söderholm played a key part in pulling off this prestigious recruitment:

“Psychiatric ailments and addiction are major social problems. Despite the great need for research this has been a neglected area.”

Linköping University will now have a leading centre for psychiatric and affective disorders, with Markus Heilig at the helm. He is coming to an environment where there are already strong research teams, for example in neurobiology.

“The unique thing about Professor Heilig’s research is that he combines advanced molecular research with clinical work on patients. So, in conjunction with Region Östergötland, we can build a strong treatment unit,” Professor Söderholm says.

Professor Heilig began his research career in experimental psychiatry, and since being hand-picked to join the NIH alcohol research institute, his work has mainly centred around the most common and most deadly drug in the world. It doesn't take much for people who have a strong genetic load to get hooked. Others can drink a lot before dependency sets in, but by then the brain functions have been changed fundamentally and for the long term.

Few alcoholics succeed in stopping, despite long and thorough treatment programmes. Existing medicines are ineffective and have many side effects. Through studies of the brain’s signal paths for stress and negative feelings, Professor Heilig is looking for new substances that can stop the craving for alcohol. But not all patients respond in the same way. The treatment needs to be individualised, he stresses.

“The same treatment for all is a bad thing in any type of care, but particularly with behavioural disorders. Genetically we’re very different – how does this fact affect how we respond to treatment? We test this on rats and mice ,” he says.

The new centre will be equipped with the latest technology for this sort of research, powerful tools than make it possible to quickly and precisely cut and paste gene sequences.

Prof Heilig’s research has centred around alcohol dependency since the beginning of the last decade, but now he is looking forward to working more closely with other specialists in psychiatry and neuroscience.

“When I began looking around in the faculties and the university I discovered that there were a lot of people with outstanding expertise in areas that are probably extremely important for those of us who are interested in psychiatric diseases.

  • Physical contact – how does it affect emotional states and social connections?
  • Neuroeconomics – how does the brain handle risky decisions?
  • Pain and inflammation.
  • Drug addiction, negative feelings and stress.

“Now we have decided to group together to create a centre. Everyone will carry on with their own lines of research, but this also creates opportunities for unique collaborations. We know different things, and we cover a broad spectrum. Together we already have a critical mass and lot of talented young people who want to join our work as PhD students and postdocs,” Professor Heilig says.

Text: Åke Hjelm
Photo: Göran Billeson