Faculty Members

Dr. Katherine Aitchison

Professor
Department of Psychiatry
    Contact details are for academic matters only.

About Me

Dr. Katherine Aitchison is a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Medical Genetics and the Associate Director, Mental Health, for the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute at the University of Alberta.  She is a Consulting Psychiatrist with the Edmonton Early Psychosis Intervention Clinic (EEPIC) and the Edmonton Mood and Anxiety Disorder Program. Dr. Aitchison has published more than 290 papers, many in prestigious journals.  She obtained her BA (First Class Hons) and BM BCh (MD equivalent, with distinction) from the University of Oxford, and did her psychiatry specialist training (MRCPsych 1996, CCST General Psychiatry 2001) at the Maudsley Hospital.  Katherine also received a PhD (Wellcome Trust funded) in psychiatry (on the pharmacogenetics of drug metabolizing enzymes and their role in response to antidepressants and antipsychotics) from King’s College London, UK.  The latter included a Travelling Fellowship to the National Institutes of Health and the University of Colorado (USA).  In 1999 she coauthored a book entitled “First Episode Psychosis” that has been used worldwide and translated into Korean. She served on the Faculty of King’s College London from 2001  to 2011. Whilst there she won awards on an annual basis as Lead Psychiatrist for a community service for young people with a psychotic illness (the Croydon First Episode Psychosis Service, or COAST) and then went on to serve in the (National) Affective Disorders Unit and the National Psychosis Unit, UK. From 2004 to 2008 she was Deputy (Acting) Coordinator of a multicentre international precision health team called Genome-based therapeutic drugs for depression (GENDEP) from which many publications have arisen.

Dr. Aitchison joined the faculty of the University of Alberta in September 2011. From 2011 to 2016, she served as an Alberta Centennial Addiction & Mental Health Research Chair. In 2013 she won a Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF) award for laboratory equipment for precision health work and matching funding from Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education (IAE), Small Equipment Grants Program. The team has also won studentships and collaborative grants. Dr. Aitchison places a strong emphasis on mentoring trainees at all levels and on creating a collaborative and productive research training environment in which trainees have the opportunity to take part in provincial, national, and international  research partnerships.  This includes her recent role as Director, Resident Research in Psychiatry, at the University of Alberta; in the past year there was a record number of submissions from University of Alberta residents for the Alberta Psychiatric Association 2018 Annual Scientific Conference. Currently, Dr. Aitchison leadsthe Precision Mental Health and Addictions Lab at the University of Alberta, which focuses on precision health for mental health.

Dr. Aitchison serves/has served on numerous important local (university and Alberta Health Services), provincial, national, and international committees related to mental health, psychopharmacology, and genetics. She is  Associate Editor, Frontiers in Pharmacology and  Review Editor, Frontiers in Genetics: Genomic Medicine, a member of two more journal editorial boards, and has been invited to join the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry editorial board as Associate Editor, Genetics.

Honors include: 2015 Distinguished Speaker for the IndoCanadian Psychiatric Association, election to Member status by the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2016;  Lead Psychiatrist for an award-winning team, EEPIC - a Canadian Mental Health Association Award in 2012, and in 2018 an Alberta Health Services President's Excellence Award in the Outstanding Achievements in the Patient and Family-Centred Care category.

In both Dr. Aitchison’s clinical practice and the research conducted by the team, the aim is to empower those with lived experience (patients and their caregivers) in shared decision-making with their health care providers. 


Research

The focus of Dr. Aitchison’s research is precision health for mental health. As defined by Alberta Innovates, precision health “uses an individual’s genetic makeup, environmental exposures and lifestyle to create and apply a program of illness prevention, detection and intervention.” The University of Alberta’s working definition is: "Precision Health is founded on data and analytics—it is an emerging health model that integrates molecular, clinical and environmental data to improve the diagnosis and treatment of individual patients, as well as to inform the social determinants of health."

  • In terms of illness prevention, together with Dr. Scot Purdon (Alberta Health Services) and Dr. Phil Tibbo (Dalhousie University), her trainees have been seeking to shed further light on genetic and environmental factors that may trigger the onset of a psychotic illness. The team’s work has confirmed earlier findings regarding the role that smoking cannabis in one’s teenage years and genes, such as COMT (relevant to the levels of dopamine in a key area of the brain) may play in this (Lodhi et al., under review). They have also confirmed findings regarding a relationship between childhood trauma and vulnerability to psychosis (Roper, 2015). In addition, they have ongoing work that aims to prevent long-term physical ill-health in the context of mental health conditions, and to better understand factors relating to suicidal ideation and behaviors (in order to be able to take appropriate preventive measures), and conversely to resilience in the face of trauma (in order to make recommendations to enhance this).
  • In terms of illness detection, consistent with the National Institute of Mental Health Research Domain Criteria initiative (RDocC), the team seeks to use innovative approaches to the understanding mental disorders, including applying a dimensional approach to the study of depression and to symptoms therein, such as anhedonia (loss of pleasure in previously pleasurable activities; Ren et al., under review). The team has also been a host laboratory for a Fulbright Canada Distinguished Scholar and expert in the field of addiction, and, together with him and collaborators, including Dr. L. Postovit, are seeking to identify genetic factors associated with addictions.
  • In terms of illness intervention, our team is working to bring comprehensive and robust testing for genes that predict how one’s body will respond not only to medications but also to dietary substances and toxins to the clinic. Such testing will be useful not just for mental health but also for all areas of medicine and surgery. In addition, they are investigating factors that predict better response to treatment for physical ill-health in the context of mental health conditions.

Research Keywords

addictions, biomarkers, cardiovascular risk, cardiovascular risk factors, clinical interventions, Diagnostic scanner, disability, discovery, DNA extraction and sample processing, drug dependency, epigenetic, genetic, genetics, Genotyping machines, health, health outcomes, health services, illness, mental health, mental health and addictions, metabolic dysfunction, molecular genetics, mortality, neuroscience, opioids, pharmacogenetics, physical comorbidity, polysubstance use, psychopharmacology, psychosis, genetics, epigenetics, weight gain, substance misuse, treatment, prevention, knowledge, translational, treatment, treatment outcomes, gambling disorder, alcohol use, treatment response, treatment response predictors, treatment retention

Team Members

The Precision Mental Health and Addictions Lab team encompasses both clinical and lab-based research. Dr. Aitchison currently leads a team of 14, made up of PhD, MSc, and undergrad students, lab technicians, postdoctoral fellows, psychiatry residents, and clinical research assistants. She places a strong emphasis on mentoring trainees at all levels and on creating a collaborative and productive research training environment in which trainees have the opportunity to take part in provincial, national, and international research partnerships.