Inspiring careers: Prof. Peter Jones

Name: Prof. Peter Jones

Job title: Professor of Psychiatry and Head of Department.

Professor Jones’ research works at the interface of population-based research, neuroscience and clinical psychiatry. He is both a clinical psychiatrist and academic researcher. His research principally focuses on understanding the causes, mechanisms and treatments for psychosis (particularly schizophrenia) dementia, depression and bipolar disorder. Professor Jones is an academic psychiatrist and epidemologist and runs the EpiCentre group, which investigates classical epidemiological characteristics in order to uncover causes, and have particular interests in cognition, longitudinal data and novel modelling approaches to defining life course descriptions of disorders and psychological dimensions in the population that are believed to be strong phenotypes for aetiological, genetic and treatment research than traditional approaches

1. Why did you choose psychiatry?

I chose psychiatry because it seemed the most interesting, challenging and elusive speciality. I had read neurobiology during my first degree and wanted to find out more about the medicine of the brain after I qualified but, as was fairly common at the time, worked in internal medicine for a while and did the MRCP before trying to get a job in either neurology or psychiatry as a taster. The interview for the training rotation at the Maudsley Hospital was a week or two before the neurology scheme to which I’d applied, so fate played a part and I withdrew from that. I’ve never looked back and regard psychiatry as the more interesting end of the clinical neuroscience spectrum. It’s only recently dawning on international funders that the reason progress may seem slow in solving the brain disorders we call psychiatric is that they are difficult: the brain is incredibly complex and these illnesses are likely to represent very subtle perturbations in overall function, not gross lesions.

2. What do you do now as a psychiatrist?

I soon began on an academic track and hugely enjoy having a foot in each of the university and the NHS; a major part of my current role as a senior clinical academic and Head of Department being to make the interface between the two work creatively and synergistically for the benefit of patients.

My clinical interests soon settled on schizophrenia and psychotic disorders, sometimes known as the heartland of psychiatry. In London and later Nottingham I worked with people suffering severe and established illness in a rehabilitation service. Having moved to Cambridge I became involved in the development of a specialised early intervention service for young people with a first episode of a psychotic illness: won a national award in 2007 and being involved with an amazing team has been a great experience and generates benefit for patients through clinical and research excellence.

One of my enduring research interests has been the role of early brain development in establishing the seeds of later mental illnesses, many of which become apparent during the great acceleration of neurodevelopment from puberty until the end of the third decade. Psychiatry is quite wrong in having a separation in adolescent and adult services in the middle of this period; it’s quite illogical. My favourite piece of research has been an investigation looking at early childhood development as a predictor of adult schizophrenia in a national birth cohort, 5000 people born in March 1946 and studied from time to time ever since. In the early 1990s there were fresh ideas about neurodevelopmental abnormalities in schizophrenia but it was possible these were due to errors in a very difficult research field. I thought I would show there was nothing in it using a unique, unbiased epidemiological sample. On the contrary, subtle abnormalities and delays in language, motor, cognitive and social development were apparent in the children who, as adults, would develop schizophrenia. The paper is one of the most highly cited in psychiatry but we still don’t fully understand its implications. The early developmental differences probably reflect slight abnormalities in the establishment of neural connectivity that have an age-dependent manifestation. I wonder whether I’ll be the one to finally work it out, or whether someone else will.

3. One key publication interested students should read:

Jones P, Rodgers B, Murray R, Marmot M. Child development risk factors for adult schizophrenia in the British 1946 birth cohort. Lancet. 1994 Nov 19;344(8934):1398-402. PubMed link.

4. Cambridge Neuroscience profile.