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Researchers from the Department of Psychiatry are leading a new study to understand how the channels contribute to psychiatric illnesses, and locate new therapeutic targets.

Calcium channel blocker

Professors Liz Tunbridge and Paul Harrison and Dr Mike Clark from the Department of Psychiatry, Wilfrid Haerty (Earlham Institute, Norwich) and Daniel Weinberger (Lieber Institute for Brain Development, Baltimore) have been awarded a grant by the MRC to study voltage-gated calcium channels in the human brain. The aim is to understand how the channels contribute to psychiatric illnesses, in particular bipolar disorder, and whether they might offer new therapeutic targets.

Voltage-gated calcium channels are involved in how cells, including brain cells, move calcium ions around, helping them to transmit and respond to electrical impulses.  Calcium signals are thought to be in some way abnormal in people with bipolar disorder. Recent research shows that genes coding for these channels are indeed involved in the cause of bipolar disorder and some other psychiatric disorders. Drugs which act upon these channels may therefore be useful in treating these conditions. However, most research about these channels has been done in rodents not humans, and currently available channel-blocking drugs, which are used to treat high blood pressure, are designed to target the circulatory system rather than the brain. 

The new MRC grant will allow Professor Tunbridge and colleagues to apply powerful new methods to identify the types of voltage-gated calcium channels that are present in the human brain, and identify those that might be particularly important in the causes and treatment of psychiatric illnesses.

The study complements other ongoing research about these calcium channels. The Oxford study of Calcium channel Antagonism, Mood and Sleep (OxCAMS), supported by the Wellcome Trust and the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, is testing the effects of a currently available calcium channel-blocking drug on mood, cognition, brain activity, and sleep.  In addition, Professor Tunbridge’s work informs studies currently underway at the Structural Genomics Consortium, led by Professor Chas Bountra and Dr Liz Carpenter, which aim to solve the 3D structure of one key calcium channel.