On the Road for Sex & Gender in Mental Health, Oct 2018

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To give you a sense of what is happening “behind the scenes” of the Women’s Brain Project (WBP), we wanted to share a few events our team attended earlier this year. Participation in a meeting or conference often involves giving a talk or being on a panel, but not always.

The list is far from exhaustive, and is merely intended as a sample to give you an idea of the presence of WBP as well as key messages of conferences and meetings which take place primarily across Europe.

October 4, 2018: 5th Burghölzli Psychiatry Meeting, Zurich

(You can see the full program here – in German.)

This is the annual meeting of the scientific community working at or with the Psychiatrische Universitätsklinik Zürich (PUK). It was a meeting with about 100 participants, including professors, neurologists, psychiatrists, HCP, students, and postdocs. The event highlighted interesting trends in international research by inviting external speakers, and gave visibility to local projects with short presentations. There were a lot of interesting talks covering a wide range of conditions (autism, schizophrenia, aggressivity, dementia care, forensic psychiatry) and techniques (epidemiology, advanced imaging, biochemistry, epigenetics).

Maria Teresa Ferretti, Scientific Officer of the WBP, was kindly invited by Professor Edna Grünblatt and organizers to give a keynote on sex differences in mental conditions, with a focus on Alzheimer’s. The talk was very well received, as sex and gender differences are well-established in psychiatry. Many participants came to talk to Maria Teresa after her presentation and shared either published or unpublished work supporting the concept of sex-specific pathologies and risk factors.

October 15-16, 2018: Precision Medicine Beyond Cancer (PMBC) Meeting in Munich, Germany

This was the first PMBC meeting organized by Dr Thomas Wilckens, an authority in the field of Precision Medicine. The event convened about 100 participants hailing from the pharma industry, consultancy, and academia, as well as medical doctors and funding agencies. It was intense and interactive, with very inspiring presentations and animated discussions afterward.

The speakers made a very solid case for the use of precision medicine and various artificial intelligence (AI) based techniques to improve the detection and treatment of a wide variety of conditions. The leitmotiv was that we should stop treating the symptoms, but re-categorize diseases based on their etiology and patterns (again, via big data analysis).

One clear example was given by Dr Marta Alarcon Riquelme, from Genyo, Spain and the PRECISESADS project – here, they are using molecular pathways to reclassify autoimmune diseases, hoping to improve the diagnostic procedure and cut delays in diagnosis.

Precision medicine can help to identify endophenotypes (a very strong case for metabolomics, which can integrate genomic data and add the ‘environment’ information into the equation, was made by Martin Hornshaw, Metabolon). Catherine Brownstein, from Harvard, gave a few more examples of use of novel technologies to add data and nuances to our diagnostics toolbox. She mentioned digital phenotypes, as well as ‘Patients like me’ – initiatives which put the patient in a central position, and leverage his or her experience to further characterize conditions and guide medical decisions.

However, the meeting also highlighted a lot of open issues. Technical – false results due to statistical problems with analysis of ‘dense data’ (small “n” with a lot of variables), but also the need to prepare the regulatory landscape. If we reclassify conditions based on molecular pathways, how to we reorganize the way we test and approve drugs for a given indication?

Maria Teresa Ferretti gave a talk that was very well received. It put the focus on the current diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) – a differential diagnosis of probable AD which can be confirmed only postmortem (PM). Of course, in AD a lot of work has to be done, but the direction is that of molecular diagnosis and PM to guide the whole process. In PM, sex will be a crucial aspect. Questions were posed to speakers regarding sex in their databases; they were sure it is taken care of… This is the same answer some AD professors gave to Maria Teresa before they actually decided to check – and that’s when they realized there was a lot of work that could be done to study sex differences.

October 19-20, 2018: Alzheimer Disease Society Austria annual meeting in Graz, Austria

(The full program, in German, can be viewed here.)

This was a typical medical gathering, with about 100 participants from Austria. The most noticeable activity of this society is the organization and management of PRODEM, a registry of dementia in Austria with very high level data, especially imaging. WBP is collaborating with Professor Harald Schmidt, the director of PRODEM, on an analysis of sex and gender differences in this dataset (Julie Martinkova’s project).

There were very interesting presentations on clinical management of various aspect of dementia, including delirium, psychiatric symptoms, and autonomic disorders. Maria Teresa Ferretti gave a talk, which reviewed the WBP’s work so far in AD. It was well received, and prompted a lot of good questions – in particular on sex differences in genetic risk factors.

October 21, 2018: DayOne Initiative team Experts meeting on “Digital Biomarkers – Paradigm shift or pie in the sky?” in Basel

(The program can be seen here.)

This event was particularly relevant to the WBP as digital biomarkers offer an opportunity to revolutionize research and drug development in psychiatric and neurological disorders. The intersection between healthcare and technology has made the creation and adoption of digital biomarkers viable. This refers to the collection of non-invasive behavioural data from multiple sources to create a phenotypic signature.

One whole presentation was dedicated to the use of digital biomarkers in the mental health area. During the event, we had a chance to hear Emilio Merlo-Pich from Takeda speak. The company is exploring the potential for ‘digital biomarkers’ to help develop new treatments, with a particular focus on schizophrenia and treatment-resistant depression. Along with the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), research centers, and other big pharma players like Novartis, Roche, Lily, and many others, they partner in a project PRISM that aims to help find new treatments more quickly for the three most common brain disorders in Europe: Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and major depression using among others Smartphone technologies.

The event offered a great opportunity to interact and to exchange with many researchers and industry experts in the area of biomarkers and clinical trials design as well as innovative technologies and precision medicine.

For more information on digital biomarkers for mental health, visit this webpage.


October 23, 2018: Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF) meeting in London, UK

Linked to their Annual General Meeting, the DDF – a specialist venture capital fund that invests in innovative science to create meaningful new medicines for dementia – held a meeting attended by WBP.

The main panel of interest was on “Redefining Alzheimer’s Disease”, which WBP Advisory Board member Tania Dussey-Cavassini participated in. It looked at prevention, sex and gender differences, and some of the issues related to doing research with (mostly male) mice.


We will try to share more such updates, but in the meantime, you can always follow us on Twitter or join us on our LinkedIn WBP Group to stay abreast of where the WBP is and what we are up to.

And if you happen to be attending a meeting or conference related to mental health, let us know – maybe we can connect in person!

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