Professor Bill Deakin graduated in Medicine at Leeds University in 1973. He took an extra year in his training to obtain a 1st in Physiology and this excited his interest in neurobiology and the organisation of behaviour. He specialised in Psychiatry and joined the Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park, London to further his training and worked on his PhD at the National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill. He was a MRC Training Fellow for 5 years. His PhD investigated how distinct 5HT (serotonin) neurone pathways in the rat brain have different functions in regulating adaptive, coping responses to stress.
Bill moved to the University of Manchester as Senior Lecturer in the early 1980s to continue 5HT research but in clinical experimental medicine with volunteers and patients with depression, anxiety and antisocial behaviour. One study funded by the Wellcome Trust involved measuring stress hormones in saliva from 500 mothers in the Wythenshawe estate and relating hormone levels to psycho-social adversity and brain 5HT functioning. Some 5HT pathways appear to be involved in anxiety and work to keep us out of risky or stressful situations while others are concerned with resilience in the face of long-term difficulties. 5HT also has important roles in addiction and social behaviour.
Bill’s group developed ideas about the role of glutamate in schizophrenia at first from studies in human post-mortem brain. More recently they have developed novel magnetic resonance imaging methods to track the action of drugs in the brain such as the glutamate antagonist ketamine. Bill is currently investigating how the antibiotic minocycline appears to improve the outcome of treatment for schizophrenia.
He is the experimental medicine lead of the UK Mental Health Research Network, a National Institute for Health Research Senior Investigator and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. He has over 200 refereed publications and an H-factor of 60.
Bill Deakin heads Neuroscience Research in the Division of Psychiatry. An important focus of his group is to use modern imaging techniques to directly visualise 5HT and glutamate working in the brain. Patients and volunteers lie in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner and the images show which parts of the brain respond to drugs chosen to probe 5HT or glutamate functioning and how it performs mental tasks. The group can show, for example, that a single dose of an antidepressant drug lights up areas of the brain concerned with anxiety responses and turns off other areas concerned with memory in healthy volunteers.
The group can also visualise how these neurotransmitters modify how the brain processes information. For example, viewing the image of a fearful face engaged regions of the brain concerned with emotion; a pre-dose of an antidepressant specifically affects this part of the response while not affecting fear responses in other brain regions. They are now investigating these effects in patients with anxiety, depression and antisocial behaviour.
Humans share the same set of about 30,000 genes including those concerned with 5HT and glutamate, but the particular copies we each carry from our mother and father are often slightly different and vary in their activity. Comparing brain responses in individuals with different variants is a new focus of the group’s work. For example, they used the internet to recruit more than 1000 individuals who completed a questionnaire about schizophrenia-like experiences. Those prone to such experiences were more likely to have an inactive variant of a neurotransmitter gene. This is a new approach to unravelling the role of genes in mental illness.