Global Mental Health

A conversation with Brena Sena, Program Manager for the NeuroMex Program

NeuroMex hosts it’s first Mexico Leaders’ Meeting in Mexico City

A conversation with Brena Sena, Program Manager for the NeuroMex Program

Juliana Restivo Question: Could you describe the NeuroMex program to the community?

Brena Sena Answer: The Neuropsychiatric Genetics of Psychosis in Mexico Populations (NeuroMex) program is a large three-part collaboration between the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the National Institute of Psychiatry in Mexico City, Mexico. These institutions have come together in the largest sample collection and genome-wide association studies (GWAS) analysis focused on psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in the country. The program also aims to develop capacity building and training along with Mexican collaborators and researchers ensuring the advancement of neuropsychiatric genetics research in Mexico.

Q: Could you share some more information about the meeting you had in May?

A: On May 20th – 21st the NeuroMex team hosted its first Mexico Leaders’ Meeting in Mexico City, Mexico. The event convened leaders from the multi-site study to kick-start the program. Topics discussed included the latest advancements in neuropsychiatric genetics research and the context of Mexico, clinical perspectives of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and the importance of including Latin American ancestry in psychiatric genetics research. 20+ leaders from the National Institute of Psychiatry in Mexico City including Mexico PI Beatriz Camarena and mental health leader María Elena Medina-Mora as well as psychiatric and health institution leaders from the states of Queretaro, Campeche, and Guanajuato attended the event.

Q: Was there a moment/experience that stands out to you from the meeting in Mexico?

A: One of the most powerful experiences has been in seeing our clinical-researchers in Mexico develop as a team and build skills to expand this work in the future. Seeing our Mexican collaborators roll-play the recruitment of participants into the study has been one of the most impactful moments thus far; experiencing the sensitivity and care that each of the clinician-researchers undertakes to ensure informed consent of participants through the use of the UBACC instrument which supports in assessing decisional capacity of participants in participating in clinical research, and the empathy and thoughtfulness in answering concerns and questions of participants has been incredibly powerful.

Q: Where do you see the biggest need?

A: One of the biggest needs is in building strong collaborations across institutions and fields but there is also a great need in the support and development of research efforts on the ground in the countries we work with. Without the training and development of research and analytical skills, the data that we collect will not be accessible to Mexican researchers. A very important need and goal of the NeuroMex program is to develop skills in country so that Mexican clinical-researchers are writing and publishing on the data collected from Mexican populations and so that they can be a part of and lead in the development of treatments and clinical practices that will benefit their populations.

Q: Where do you see the biggest impacts of the work of the NeuroMex program?

A: One of the main impetus for the collaboration is that only 1.17% of samples analyzed under genome-wide association studies (GWAS) come from Latin American populations, where the majority of samples are from European and white populations leading to Latin American and Mexican populations not benefiting from the recent genomic revolution, the development of new drug targets, and novel treatments and therapies. Thus one of the biggest impacts of this work and hope is that this will bring Mexico into the psychiatric genetics and genomics map and propel this work further in the country so that Mexican populations can benefit from discoveries in the field.

Q: What were the biggest takeaways from the NeuroMex meeting?

A: Some of the biggest lesson learned and takeaways in the recent Mexico Leaders Meeting and, in this work, thus far has been the power of collaboration across countries and institutions. I am grateful for the leadership of Dr. Karestan Koenen and our Mexico PI Dr. Beatriz Camarena for being examples in the frontier of collaborative global mental health work bringing together the best minds in clinical psychiatry, genetics, research, and training working to push limitations and boundaries in the field.

Q: How do you recommend others become involved?

A: I highly recommend firstly becoming aware of the stark inequalities and lack of diversity that exists in current genetics and genomics studies and in studies of psychiatric genetics in particular. Secondly, I urge others to become involved in this work by supporting efforts to reduce disparities in access to technologies and training related to psychiatry, genetics, and research in non-US and European countries. This is greatly important especially during a time where research funds are being cut all over Latin American, and finally I recommend that folks work within collaborations that have an explicit aim of inclusion and work with other populations as we advance in fields such as psychiatric genetics so that we are not developing treatments and novel therapies that are not as effective for non-white European populations.

Q: What do you enjoy most about this work?

A: Working between our teams in Boston and Mexico has been the most fulfilling part of this work. I get to work between Spanish and English on a daily basis and among psychiatrists, psychologists, geneticists, data scientists, managers, and co-workers that truly know the meaning of global mental health work and what it takes to bring this work forth to all.