Dr Robert Keers
Lecturer in Psychology
My research aims to understand how both genes and the environment influence the development and treatment of anxiety and depression. I take an interdisciplinary approach to this question and use a range of methods from human genomics, animal models and pharmacogenomics to large case-control, twin and cohort studies.
I have a special interest in gene-environment interaction (GxE), where genetic variants are proposed to make individuals more or less sensitive to their environment. A significant role of GxE may explain why some individuals exposed to adversity (such as childhood maltreatment) develop psychiatric disorders while others are resilient. It might also explain why so few genetic variants have been reliably associated with depression or anxiety.
The majority of my current research falls into one of the following three streams:
- Genome-wide GxE
Sensitivity to the environment is likely the result of multiple genetic variants of small effect from across the genome. However, instead of including the entire genome, most GxE studies conducted to date focus on a small number of candidate genes. In collaboration with researchers at King’s College London I recently derived a polygenic score for environmental sensitivity using whole genome data in identical twins. I am currently working to validate this score as moderator of parenting, childhood maltreatment and stressful life events on depression and anxiety in various population and clinical samples.
- Translating GxE from aetiology to personalized medicine
It has been suggested that genetic variants that increase sensitivity to negative environments may also enhance the effects of positive, supportive environments including psychological treatments. In line with this hypothesis, my recent work suggests that children with a high polygenic score for environmental sensitivity respond better to more intensive forms of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) than those with a low sensitivity. I am currently working to replicate this finding in several adult samples in collaboration with researchers at King’s College London and The Max Planck Institute, Munich. I also aim to extend this work to find predictors of response to interventions aimed at preventing anxiety and depression in school children and students.
- Understanding the mechanisms underlying GxE
The mechanism by which genetic variants increase sensitivity to the environment remains poorly understood. Together with my collaborators at Queen Mary, King’s College London and Oxford, I am exploring several potential mechanisms underlying GxE, including increased sensory processing sensitivity, cognitive biases and emotional reactivity using healthy controls and individuals with depression and anxiety.