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Precision Medicine DTP - Studying biological aging to understand and prevent premature mortality in mental illness

   School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences

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  Dr Jasmin Wertz, Dr P Thomson  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


People who experience mental illness have a reduced life expectancy by approximately 15 to 20 years. The bulk of premature mortality is due to deaths from preventable physical diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. These diseases are often referred to as “age-related” physical diseases, because they are typically seen in older individuals, and are thought to be driven, in part, by the physiological process of aging itself. To reduce premature mortality and extend healthy lifespan among individuals with mental illness, it is critical to (1) understand why people with mental illness are more likely to develop these diseases; and (2) predict who is most at risk. This PhD project will address these questions by investigating biological aging in people with mental illness.

The project will capitalise on the availability of novel biomarkers that can quantify a person’s biological aging by measuring DNA methylation.Previous findings suggest that methylation aging biomarkers can help predict premature disease and death years or even decades before age of onset, guiding patient stratification and therefore prevention and monitoring. However, there is little research examining these biomarkers in people with mental illness. This PhD project will analyse associations between mental illness, biological aging and physical health and mortality in the Generation Scotland cohort, a large, richly-phenotyped, population-based cohort of ~20k individuals with epigenetic data. 


The project has the following aims: 

(1) To evaluate whether DNA methylation aging biomarkers can predict physical health outcomes in people with mental illness. 

(2) To test whether aging biomarkers could be used to monitor physical side effects of psychiatric medication.

(3) To analyse to what extent health-risk behaviours (e.g. smoking, diet, and physical activity) as well as genetic risk factors explain associations between mental illness, biological aging and physical illness. 

Training outcomes 

1. Understanding of psychiatric epidemiology and disease mechanisms that link mental and physical health. 

2. Data science skills for working with large-scale datasets that include genetic, epigenetic, clinical, biological, and social data. 

3. Application of advanced analytics, such as machine learning approaches, to predict disease risk.

4. Ability to critically assess information, write papers and present work to academic and lay audiences (including patient groups).

The project will be suitable for students with a BSc or MSc in a relevant field, and an interest in mental health science. Training will be provided in bioinformatics, genomics, advanced statistical analyses of large-scale datasets; gerontology and mental-health epidemiology. 

Q&A Session

If you have any questions regarding this project, you are invited to attend a Q&A  session hosted by the Supervisor(s) on 8th December at 1pm via Microsoft Teams. Click here to join the meeting. If you get an error message when accessing the link, please try a different device.

About the Programme

This MRC programme is joint between the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. You will be registered at the host institution of the primary supervisor detailed in your project selection.

All applications should be made via the University of Edinburgh, irrespective of project location. For those applying to a University of Glasgow project, your application along with any supporting documents will be shared with University of Glasgow.

Please note, you must apply to one of the projects and you must contact the primary supervisor prior to making your application. Additional information on the application process is available from the following link:

For more information about Precision Medicine visit:

Funding Notes

Start: September 2023

Qualifications criteria: Applicants applying for an MRC DTP in Precision Medicine studentship must have obtained, or will soon obtain, a first or upper-second class UK honours degree or equivalent non-UK qualification, in an appropriate science/technology area. The MRC DTP in Precision Medicine grant provides tuition fees and stipend of at least £17,668 (UKRI rate 2022/23).

Full eligibility details are available:

Enquiries regarding programme: [Email Address Removed]


1. Plana-Ripoll O, Pedersen CB, Agerbo E, et al. A comprehensive analysis of mortality-related health metrics associated with mental disorders: a nationwide, register-based cohort study. Lancet. 2019;394(10211):1827-1835. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32316-5.
2. Nordentoft M, Wahlbeck K, Hällgren J, et al. Excess mortality, causes of death and life expectancy in 270,770 patients with recent onset of mental disorders in Denmark, Finland and Sweden. PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e55176. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055176
3. Lu AT, Quach A, Wilson JG, et al. DNA methylation GrimAge strongly predicts lifespan and healthspan. Aging (Albany NY). 2019;11(2):303-327. doi:10.18632/aging.101684
4. Wertz J, Caspi A, Ambler A, et al. Association of history of psychopathology with accelerated aging at midlife. JAMA Psychiatry. 2021;78(5):530-539. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.4626
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