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Philip Burnet

BSc(Hons), MSc, PhD

Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies

My research focuses on ways to modulate brain chemistry so that its complex functions can be preserved or improved.  In aging and psychiatric disorders, there is an impairment of cognition (memory, attention, problem solving abilities) and positive mood, and only some patients get well with the currently available medication. My work will ultimately offer either supplements or alternatives to contemporary treatments of psychiatric illness.

I am particularly interested in the serotonin and glutamic acid neurotransmitters systems, which are crucial for healthy brain development and well-being. A disturbance of these pathways has been implicated in psychiatric illness and in aging, and re-establishing their natural activity restores normal brain functions. I use several approaches to modify serotonin and glutamic acid actions, and then look at how this affects behaviour.  To help me achieve this, I collaborate with researchers within and outside Oxford, and with Industry.

Understanding how neurotransmitters are regulated is an important step before methods to manipulate them can be developed. I have demonstrated altered levels of serotonin receptors in schizophrenia, and reported their complex modulation by treatments. In schizophrenia, I also found increased levels of brain D-amino acid oxidase (DAO), a modulator of glutamic acid activity. I have used a technique called RNA interference to reduce DAO, and have observed changes in glutamate receptors, which are essential for cognition. Therefore, decreasing DAO may be a treatment strategy to restore reduced cognition in schizophrenia, a benefit not provided by current therapies.

I am currently studying the effect of the periphery on brain biology, memory and mood. Diet and gut bacteria increase body levels of glutamate receptor stimulating amino acids. My research is now testing if these amino acids and intestinal microbes affect brain neurotransmission and behaviour. My goal is to find the best ways to help the treatment of psychiatric disorders, and maintain healthy brain function during aging. In addition to my research, I am the Director of Graduate Studies for Psychiatry, I teach on the MSc Neuroscience and MRCPsych courses, and I am on the editorial board of ‘Nutrition and aging’.