Plomin and Freeman honoured

Ella Rhodes reports on British Psychological Society Research Board awards.

Two pioneers in psychology have been named winners of the 2020 BPS Research Board awards. Professor Robert Plomin is the winner of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award and Professor Daniel Freeman has received The Presidents’ Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychological Knowledge.

Plomin (King’s College London, pictured left) has spent the past 45 years of his research bringing genetics and genomics to our understanding of psychology and development. After a PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, and posts at the University of Colorado in Boulder and Pennsylvania State University, Plomin moved to the UK in 1994 as the first Medical Research Council (MRC) Research Professor.

In the same year he and Professor Sir Michael Rutter launched the SGDP (Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre) at King’s College London – the first MRC interdisciplinary research centre – which he directed between 2007 and 2010. The SGDP is probably best known for its longitudinal twin study of learning abilities and disabilities in 10,000 pairs of twins, the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), launched by Plomin in 1995 which currently includes collaborations with 40 researchers and around 12 large-scale collaborations in genome-wide association studies.

Plomin’s research has led to breakthroughs in a number of areas including the genetic and environmental origins of individual differences in cognitive development and their impact on education, the interaction between the environment and genetics in development, and applying advances in DNA techniques to developmental psychology. He has published more than 800 papers, was the youngest ever president elected by the International Behavior Genetics Association in 1994, and has received lifetime achievement awards for his research from the American Psychological Association, Association of Psychological Science, Behavior Genetics Association and is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Academy of Political and Social Science, Academy of Medical Sciences (UK), and the British Academy.

He said he was especially pleased to receive the award as it signalled an acceptance of the role of nature, as well as nurture, in psychological development after ‘several turbulent decades’ of the nature vs nurture debate. ‘The most exciting research lies ahead, as we begin to use inherited DNA differences (polygenic scores) to predict from birth adult personality, mental health and illness and cognitive abilities and disabilities, as described in my book, Blueprint (Penguin, 2019). I just need another lifetime!’

Freeman (University of Oxford) is an expert in paranoia and his research has involved uncovering ways to support people who have experienced psychosis with a particular focus on those suffering from persecutory delusions, as well as innovative approaches such as virtual reality in treating mental health conditions. Freeman is Professor of Clinical Psychology and a National Institute for Health Research Professor and has worked clinically as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.

Persecutory delusions occur in more than 70 per cent of people with schizophrenia and, given their impact on patients, have become a key target for treatment in psychosis. Across 15 years Freeman developed a psychological treatment for persecutory delusions which had not responded to treatment, called the Feeling Safe Programme which involves 20 sessions and has led to a recovery rate of 50 per cent.

Freeman has also used virtual reality as a psychological treatment for mental health conditions and in a randomised control trial of a VR treatment for a fear of heights found that 78 per cent of people in the treatment condition experienced at least a halving of their fear. He has also developed a virtual reality treatment for persecutory delusions which is currently being tested in another randomised control trial and another treatment for people with psychosis who also have agoraphobia.

‘The award has led to warm reflection on the collective: those clinical authors from the past whose words have resonated, the mentors I’ve been fortunate to observe and gain counsel, the patients who have shared so much, peers who push the boundaries, the team members – and the administrative support – who make it happen. All linked by a common thread of the desire to move things forward for the better. I would like to thank all those people.’  

Looking to the future Freeman said his desire to make real improvements for people burned brighter than ever, and recent events had brought his attention to the excessive mistrust in society and how to counter this unchecked mistrust – particularly in relation to vaccine hesitancy.

‘In clinical settings my new face-to-face psychological therapy for persistent persecutory delusions leads to recovery for half of patients, which is a substantial improvement in treatment outcomes, but that means new thinking is required for the other half of patients. Then there is a programme of work developing automated VR treatments for each mental health condition and testing whether they can be made even more efficacious than face-to-face therapies.’ 

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