EnvironMENTAL project: deciphering environmental factors related to mental disorders

Determining the influence of global environmental challenges in the field of brain and mental health is the main objective of the environMENTAL project. This initiative is funded by the European Union in the framework of the Horizon Europe programme, which will deploy an international consortium with the participation of the University of Barcelona, and will be led by Professor Gunter Schumann, head of the Centre for Population Neuroscience and Precision Medicine (PONS) and Fudan University (Shanghai).

The project, which will close in May 2027, will study the impacts of climate, pollution, urbanicity, regional socio-economic conditions and the COVID-19 pandemic on brain health, and it will decipher their underlying biological mechanisms. The research team will analyse data from more than one million European citizens and patients to find out the brain mechanisms related to environmental factors that lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress and substance abuse.

As Professor Gunter Schumann points out, “a better understanding of environmental factors and their corresponding genetic modulation responsible for specific disease mechanisms will help to estimate individual risk levels and facilitate the treatment of environment-related mental illnesses”.

Data acquired from remote-sensing satellites, climate models, atmospheric measurements, public resources and digital health applications will be linked to citizen and patient data using complex artificial intelligence-based computer models to demonstrate the effect of environmental events on brain structure and function. Comprehensive analyses using omics techniques, 3D brain organoids and virtual brain simulations will complement the analyses to identify underlying molecular mechanisms.

Once the most relevant molecular pathways have been identified, the team will begin to screen pharmacological compounds to identify molecules that interact with disease-causing molecules, and thus enhance drug discovery.

At the same time, pioneering digital health strategies using virtual reality to improve the response in people at risk of environment-related mental illness will also be established. Participants will be exposed to different psychosocial environmental scenarios (noise, crowded spaces, etc) and trained to cope with these situations; they will also have access to a virtual therapist who will guide them through overcoming anxieties and depression. “There is more than 30 years of evidence showing that people tend to respond realistically to situations and events in immersive virtual reality,” says Professor Mel Slater, director of the Event Lab Research Group and a member of the Faculty of Psychology and Institute of Neurosciences (UBNeuro) of the UB.

The environMENTAL project will create scenarios that use the power of virtual reality to go beyond what is possible in reality and lead to new insights and potentially positive outcomes for participants.

One of the most prominent application areas has been mental health. As part of the environMENTAL project, we will create scenarios that use the power of virtual reality to go beyond what is possible in reality and lead to new insights and potentially positive outcomes for participants and, ultimately, patients. This purpose will be linked to digital mental health assessments, and in this regard, a set of neuropsychological tests will be developed alongside a smartphone app to determine health problems in combination with environmental factors in everyday life. This will be based on the principles of citizen science, which allow for greater participation and interaction within the community.

With this innovative and interdisciplinary approach, environMENTAL will bring together the ideas and expertise of neuroscientists, psychiatrists, geoscientists, climatologists, psychologists, epidemiologists, anthropologists, computer scientists and experts in digital interventions, as well as patient associations and other sectors outside the academia.

The project also involves other internationally renowned teams from the Bonn University Hospital, the Charité Hospital and the Free University of Berlin (Germany); the Institute of Science and Technology Austria; the University of Southern California and the Georgia State University Research Foundation (USA); King’s College London and the University of Aix-Marseille (France), among others.

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