Dr. Anne-Laura van Harmelen

Group Director and Principal Investigator – RAISE study & HOPES project

 What projects/ studies are you currently involved with
 I am the Principal Investigator for HOPES and RAISE. I am also involved with RESIST. I hope that by increasing societal literacy and awareness about adolescent mental health problems, my research will reduce social stigma surrounding adolescent mental health problems. Reducing stigma is crucial in lowering the threshold for vulnerable adolescents to seek help. I further hope that my research will improve early identification of vulnerable young people. By integrating rich and varied predictors, my research will lay the foundations for a better understanding of the bio-psycho-social mechanisms that predict the emergence of adolescent mental health problems. The detection of such risk factors and mechanisms can help health care providers, schools, teachers, caregivers detect and help vulnerable adolescents. I further hope that my research will improve interventions for young people. Current treatments for adolescents with childhood adversity and mental illness are not very effective and little progress has been made in improving treatments. I hope that my research will help provide new intervention targets for young people suffering from mental ill health.
 Please tell us a bit about your background
 My background is in Psychology. From the very beginning of my research career I have been determined to understand what happens in individuals suffering from the consequences of childhood adversity. My graduate work was conducted at Leiden University under the supervision of Prof. Elzinga where I showed that a negative family environment where children are abused and/or neglected is associated with altered cognitive functioning and with differential structure and functioning of key emotional brain regions. These neurocognitive effects help explain why individuals with early life stress experiences are more vulnerable to develop mental health disorders. After my PhD I obtained a Rubicon Fellowship to study the interpersonal factors which ameliorate the adverse effects of maltreatment in adolescence in the Developmental Psychiatry Group led by Prof. Ian Goodyer at the University of Cambridge. I discovered that adolescent friendships are crucial in reducing the likelihood of psychopathology in those with a history of early life stress. Currently, I lead the Risk and Resilience Group. We examine the social cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms that facilitate resilience in adolescents with a history of adversity, the interplay between negative social experiences and the brain to better understand why some youth are liable to suicide.
 What inspires you to come to work?
 My work days are so varied with lots of conferences, talks, lectures and exciting meetings. I also vividly remember the first big research finding I had, which me and my collaborator (Marie-Jose van Tol) sat next to each other in my house to run the model for the first time. We were so incredibly excited when we found our result. That day was definitely one of the most exciting days I’ve had.
What’s great about living and working in Cambridge?
Cambridge hosts world leaders who are at the forefront of many scientific advances, making Cambridge a very exciting place to be able to conduct research. The opportunity for collaboration is huge, and collaborations are necessary for the improvement of science, and are especially crucial for my research. Robust, generalisable studies require strong designs and large samples, and children and adolescents with childhood adversity and/or mental health disorders are notoriously difficult to recruit and retain in research studies. By focusing on (inter)national collaborations, I have been able to increase power, apply advanced modelling techniques, and thus ameliorate the dangers of non-replicability. Moreover, collaborations bring together different perspectives on mechanistic understanding and interventions mental health. This is especially important as in the last decade, exciting new paradigms and analyses techniques have informed our understanding of mental health.