Each addressing the disease from different and unique perspectives, three young UC Davis researchers have received one of the most prestigious mental-health grants in the world to investigate one of the least understood and devastating psychiatric disorders: schizophrenia.
Stephanie L. Barrow, Melissa D. Bauman and Tara A. Niendam are among only 200 researchers worldwide selected from more than 1,000 applicants for the NARSAD Young Investigator Grants. The grants are distributed by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, formerly known as the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), the world's leading private philanthropy devoted to funding research on psychiatric disorders.
Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe and disabling brain disorder affecting about 1 percent of Americans today, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. People with schizophrenia may hear voices other people don't hear, believe that people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. People with schizophrenia are at high risk for suicide. Approximately one-third will attempt it and 1 in 10 eventually will take their lives.
The NARSAD Young Investigator Grants support early career investigators with grants of $60,000 over two years to pursue brain and behavior research in four main categories: basic research, new technologies, diagnostic tools/early intervention and next-generation therapies. The grants are among the most competitive in biomedical research, because of the great ability and career success of the applicants.
"The NARSAD Young Investigator Grants have led to groundbreaking and important new research that has improved the lives of people living with mental illness through enhanced treatments and therapies and a better understanding of the causes of mental illness," said Benita Shobe, president and chief executive officer of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.
Melissa D. Bauman, assistant adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, is examining prenatal risk factors for schizophrenia, particularly how the mother's immune system may impact fetal brain development. She will use an animal model to compare human and animal neuropathology as a potential pathway to identifying preventive or therapeutic strategies. Bauman's research is examining an emerging hypothesis in schizophrenia: That it is actually a neurodevelopmental disorder with origins in fetal development.
"It's a great honor to receive a NARSAD Young Investigator Award," Bauman said. "I think this is really an important area of research, and the support that's available through the young investigator program will allow us to make some important steps toward identifying prenatal risk factors for schizophrenia and other neurodevelopmental disorders," she said.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Tara A. Niendam, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, will examine the impact of age at onset on prefrontal cognitive dysfunction present at ascertainment, as well as the pattern of individual differences that occur in prefrontal functioning as a result of development over follow-up.
By identifying the age-related pattern of impairment in prefrontal cognitive functioning after the first episode of illness, her investigation will lend new insights on potential developmental mechanisms that contribute to the clinical and functional impairment associated with age at onset of the disease.
"Our research seeks to understand the brain-based mechanisms that contribute, not only to poor cognition in schizophrenia, but to the variety of clinical and functional outcomes in the illness," Niendam said. "We hope that understanding these mechanisms will help us develop targeted treatments for the impairments we see in individuals who struggle with the schizophrenia," she said.
Stephanie L. Barrow is a post-doctoral scholar at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience. She is exploring the convergence of immune and genetic signaling pathways in autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. The identification of a common neural pathway in both disorders as a result of genetic mutations and environmental exposures could have significant implications for the treatment of both disorders.
"These three young investigators highlight the fact that UC Davis is now one of the major centers in the nation investigating the underlying causes of schizophrenia," said Cameron Carter, UC Davis professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and psychology, and director of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and the UC Davis Imaging Research Center.
"The basic science projects of doctors Barrow and Bauman and the functional MRI study of patients by Dr. Niendam will shed new light on the mechanisms by which normal adolescent brain development goes awry in schizophrenia," Carter said. "This innovative research will provide us with novel ways of diagnosing the illness during its earliest phases and will identify new, promising treatments that will lead to better outcomes for patients with this common and disabling mental illness."