Genetic and environmental influences underlying resilience and wellbeing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Experimental Psychology


By 2030 it is anticipated that an additional two million more adults in the UK will present with mental health problems in comparison to figures from 2013. Understanding the complex aetiology of mental health is a crucial, and pressing area of research, with the ultimate aim of helping individuals to remain mentally healthy across the life-course. A key area for this research is exploring why some individuals are more resilient than others when presented with life's stresses and strains, and the role that genetic and environmental factors play in promoting resilience.
Resilience represents a complex interaction between the individual and their environment. Resilience refers to positive adaptation; the ability to maintain mental health despite experience of adversity. The concept of overcoming adversity is what differentiates resilience from positive mental wellbeing, but the way in which people respond to adversity is likely to be dependent upon their baseline mental health, so it is important to study both. Previous work has focused on individuals who do not develop symptoms of mental illness in response to adversity, but these individuals may not have a great quality of life if their wellbeing is still low. Thus the proposed research aims to explore positive mental functioning over and above the absence of symptoms of mental illness.
This PhD will explore the genetic and environmental aetiology of resilience, and how this relates to genetic and environmental influences on wellbeing. This proposal is timely because of the availability of new data on wellbeing and life events/trauma in two large and well-characterized samples, which can be combined with new genetic results from the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC).

Proposed projects:
1. To build upon research into the links between victimisation in childhood and mental health in adolescence from ALSPAC. We will explore the impact of victimization on mental health and wellbeing in young adults using new data collected on the ALSPAC young people at age 24. A key aim of this project will be to explore whether there are different degrees of resilience.

2. To consider the role of genetic and environmental factors in explaining the links between victimization and later mental health and illness by using twin analyses and polygenic risk scores from the SSGAC, as well as diverse and longitudinal measures of protective environmental experiences and exposures.

3. Using new data on traumatic life events collected on the ALSPAC young adults at age 24, we will explore the genetic and environmental predictors of resilience, with a particular focus on super-resilient individuals, who not only avoid mental illness, but maintain good mental health too.

4. To investigate genetic and environmental influences on less extreme indices of resilience by exploring how individuals respond and adapt to more common life events. We will incorporate online social network data collected from a subsample of TEDS twins to assess resilience through emotional changes (coded from tweets) after life events, and how these responses reflect genetic and environmental influences.


10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1924967 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/11/2021 Jessica May Armitage
Description 1) Not all victims of adolescent bullying go on to develop problems with their mental health. In my work, I explored factors that may confer resilience by studying how protective factors across development may lower the risk of depression and promote wellbeing among victims. Protective factors explored included social and school abilities, emotional control, as well as relationships with family and peers. It was found that childhood competence in school mitigated some of the negative effects of bullying. This meant that victims who self-reported higher competence in childhood, experienced lower symptoms of depression and higher wellbeing in adulthood compared to individuals who reported lower competence. Interventions aimed at increasing scholastic competence in childhood may therefore help to support more positive wellbeing in adulthood among victims of bullying.

2) In other study, I further explored predictors of resilience to bullying using genetic indicators of mental health. In particular, I explored whether the increase in mental ill-health among victims can be partly attributed to genetic factors using what is known as 'polygenic scores'. Polygenic scores are individual-level scores that are used to indicate an individual's genetic risk towards the trait or disorder of interest. In my study, I used polygenic scores for depression and wellbeing, and found that individuals at a lower genetic risk to depression, as indicated by their polygenic score, were more likely to have higher wellbeing following experiences of adolescent bullying. These effects, however, were small. The reasons why some go on to experience mental health problems following victimisation, while others remain resilient, therefore requires further exploration. Our results however, help to rule out a major influence of current polygenic scores.
Exploitation Route 1) The findings from the protective factor study should motivate other researchers to explore the role of school competence further and why it may enable victims to foster more positive mental health outcomes. Individual's working in schools should encourage students to have more positive perceptions of their ability.

2) The findings on the role of polygenic scores suggest that genetic profiling of victims is unlikely to be an effective means of predicting outcomes of bullying, however, further research based on larger and more well-powered cohorts should be carried out to confirm these findings.
Sectors Education,Healthcare

Description Collaboration with researchers at Laval University 
Organisation University of Laval
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration involved working on a research project with a new research team in a different country. The 2-month overseas visit involved frequent meetings with other PhD students, post-docs, statisticians, and professors in which we collaboratively planed and developed the project. I was required to learn a new statistical analysis software to independently conduct the analyses and regularly presented the findings to other members of the research team. I am currently in the process of writing up these findings and developing the first draft of the manuscript.
Collaborator Contribution The other contributors were involved in shaping the study design and research questions. Together, we interpreted the ongoing findings and planned the next analysis steps.
Impact Presented the initial findings from this study at the South West Doctural Training Partnership (SWDTP) conference in November 2019 at the University of Exeter. The talk was titled 'Using polygenic scores to understand exposure to bullying'.
Start Year 2019
Description Research without Borders 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Research without Borders is the University of Bristol's public festival of postgraduate research. The festival is a great opportunity to work with lots of other research students across the University, and to showcase your research at a major exhibition. The event takes place annually and attracts a wide audience including members of the general public, schools and students at the university. During the event I received bespoke training on communicating research, as well as ongoing support from a Public Engagement team. I also received a budget to make my exhibit. I created a stall that enabled me to communicate my research to a non-specialist, lay audience in an informal and engaging manner. I used various games and posters to ensure my research could be understood by a wide audience. During the day, I spoke to many mmbers of the public about my research and was met with some very interesting discussions. The event reinforced my motivation for carrying out research and highlighted the importance of ensuring my research aims and methods can be clearly understood by a lay audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019