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Europe's largest centre for stress research opens in Bristol

Press release issued: 23 September 2004

The Dorothy Hodgkin Building, Bristol University's new £18.75m stress research centre, will be opened today by Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science and Innovation, and patron of Bristol Neuroscience.

The Dorothy Hodgkin Building, Bristol University’s new £18.75m stress research centre, will be opened today [Thursday, September 23] by Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science and Innovation, and patron of Bristol Neuroscience

The building houses state-of-the-art labs for 120 researchers, working on radical new approaches to the treatment of stress-related illness, psychiatric disorders, Alzheimer’s disease and hormone problems. 

Stafford Lightman, Professor of Medicine and Director of the University Research Centre for Neuroendocrinology said: “The investment in the Dorothy Hodgkin Building demonstrates the critical importance of internationally competitive research to the University of Bristol and to the Wellcome Trust.  The research undertaken in this building should have a major impact on the treatment of stress related illness and psychiatric, neurological and hormonal disorders.”

Bristol University has an international reputation in the field of neuroendocrinology, and the new building will allow research teams to join forces on a single site with the space they need and facilities of the highest standard.

The building, named after Dorothy Hodgkin, the University’s Nobel Prize-winning fifth Chancellor, was funded by a grant of £8.75m from the Wellcome Trust, £5m from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and a further £5m from the University of Bristol itself.

The exterior of the building incorporates special architectural features which reflect aspects of the research being conducted inside.  These include tiles with images of the molecular structures of hormones etched on them, and the initials of famous neuroscientists and evolutionists such as Charles Darwin. 

The building also features a remarkable artwork which consists of moving images projected onto specially designed shutters installed inside five of its windows.  These images represent some of the fundamental ideas in bioscience such as the human genome project and the structure of DNA.  

In recognition of its architectural distinction, the building has been named as one of the winners of a Bristol Civic Society Environmental Award for 2004. 

The link between perception of stress and the development of disease is the core area of research in the Dorothy Hodgkin Building (DHB).  Despite the huge levels of investment in health and welfare services, stress-related disorders are increasing rapidly and becoming a major source of ill health: the Health and Safety Executive estimates work-related stress costs the UK economy at least £1.4 billion annually.

However, remarkably little is known about the way stress is perceived by the brain and how this information is processed to cause disease.  Researchers in the DHB will carry out both basic science and clinical studies to investigate the mechanisms underlying stress-related disease with the goal of developing novel drugs and treatment strategies.

The research groups are focused on a number of different areas:

Brain pathways activated by stress

Research in the DHB has already resulted in the recognition of unexpected changes in the chemical messengers of the brain (neurotransmitters) in response to chronic stress.  This has allowed the development of new drugs which are able to block the effect of stress-inducing chemicals in the brain.  These drugs should soon be available to prevent and treat a number of stress-related disorders, particularly anxiety and depression.

Stress reactivity

Studies in the DHB have developed novel techniques to measure the different ways that individuals react to stress.  These preliminary studies will now be taken forward with the aim of being able to recognise individuals who are particularly susceptible to the development of cardiovascular disease and sudden death.  This would allow the development of appropriate preventative treatments.

Stress and immune response

DHB research has demonstrated that chronic stress in elderly people can increase levels of stress hormones and result in very poor immune responses.  Preliminary studies have shown that this can be reversed by appropriate psychological support (cognitive behavioural therapy).  These studies need to be developed further to help protect many elderly people who are disproportionately susceptible to disease.

Coronary artery disease

For the very first time, researchers in the DHB have been able to study the mechanisms underlying the development of stress-induced coronary artery disease.  This should now allow the development of therapies that will protect patients at risk of developing coronary disease.

Automated measurement of stress hormones

DHB researchers have designed and developed a small, but highly specialised, machine that allows multiple small samples of blood to be taken during normal everyday activity and to allow minute-by-minute measurements of changes in stress hormone secretion.  This is a very important development since it allows researchers to investigate the effects of stress in normal everyday life.  A prototype machine is currently being built and it is hoped that further development of this machine will be of major importance both for the diagnosis and treatment of stress-related disorders.

Lord Sainsbury’s visit to Bristol Neuroscience (BN)

The opening of the Dorothy Hodgkin Building is part of a day-long visit to the University by Lord Sainsbury who was named as patron of BN in February this year.  Lord Sainsbury has a personal interest in neuroscience, having read psychology as a student at Cambridge where he studied under Richard Gregory, now Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Fellow in Neuropsychology at Bristol.

In the afternoon, Lord Sainsbury will visit the Department of Experimental Psychology, tour Medical Sciences and take part in an informal discussion with an invited group of key scientists.

In the evening, Professor Ronald de Kloet, one of Europe’s leading neuroendocrinologists and an expert in stress and anxiety disorders, will give the inaugural BN Lord Sainsbury Lecture on Stress: Food for Thought.  The event takes place at 6pm in the Medical Sciences Building. 

BN was founded by the University of Bristol in 2003 to serve the needs of the city’s large and diverse neuroscience community.  It works in parallel with University departments, is affiliated to the University’s Institute of Advanced Studies and has close links to local NHS Trusts.

BN aims to enable neuroscientists working in many separate sites across Bristol to make full use of the expertise and facilities within the University and its partner hospitals.  It raises awareness of the extent and range of neuroscience in Bristol, encourages crosstalk, and creates opportunities for interdisciplinary research.

The 2nd Annual Bristol Neuroscience Symposium on The Inflamed Brain: Infection, Inflammation, Degeneration and Repair in the Nervous System will take place on Friday 24 September.

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