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Nanotechnology, Robotics and Optogenetics to Improve Treatments for Mental Illness

The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (formerly NARSAD, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression) announced the latest recipients of its highly competitive NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grants. Since 1987, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation has invested close to $300 million in research projects to identify the causes, improve treatments and develop prevention strategies for mental illness.

NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grants enable outstanding scientists to pursue new, cutting-edge ideas with the greatest potential for breakthroughs. "We fund the most promising ideas from around the world that are likely to advance our understanding and improve treatments for mental illness," says Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., Acting President & CEO, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. "The fifteen brilliant scientists selected strive to improve the lives of those suffering and as they face increasingly tough funding challenges, the support made possible through donors of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation is more important than ever."

The fifteen established investigators, selected from 225 applicants, will receive one-year grants of up to $100,000 to pursue innovative research ideas for disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism and anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive and post-traumatic stress disorders. Annual selections were made by members of the Foundation's Scientific Council, a volunteer group of 138 leaders in brain and behavior research.

Scientific Council Member and Chair of the Distinguished Investigator Grant selection process, Jack D. Barchas, M.D., Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University said: "The latest Distinguished Investigators funded by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation have the potential to transform mental illness treatment and prevention. Some investigators hope to create breakthroughs in the targeting of treatments for schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder based on findings at the molecular level. Others plan to advance testing and treatment using robotics, virtual reality, nanotechnology and optogenetics. Still more grantees will work to improve early therapeutic intervention strategies for anxiety disorders. This year's Grantees are truly exceptional and I only wish we could have funded more."

The grant recipients and their studies follow:

BASIC RESEARCH– to understand what happens in the brain to cause mental illness:

Dr. Gary Bassell, School of Medicine, Emory University, will explore dysfunction in synapses (sites of information transmission from brain cell to brain cell) in disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. The research will focus on a signaling pathway important in synapse development and plasticity and thus learning and memory.

Dr. Bonnie L. Firestein, Rutgers University, will study a schizophrenia susceptibility gene that may be implicated in the striking changes in dendrites (spines on nerve cells where messages are received) observed in patients with schizophrenia.

Dr. John R. Kelsoe, University of California, San Diego, will explore the relationships between neurotrophins (proteins that play a role in neuron growth and survival), including the role of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and other factors in bipolar disorder. Scientific Council Member Dr. Fred Gage, Salk Institute, who discovered that the brain can grow new neurons and potentially replace diseased cells, will collaborate.

DIAGNOSTIC TOOLS / EARLY INTERVENTION —to recognize early signs of mental illnesses and treat as early as possible:

Dr. Schahram Akbarian, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, will examine changes in the brain's prefrontal cortex that may be relevant to changes observed in people with schizophrenia. The study will build upon Dr. Akbarian's earlier discovery, with the support of a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant, of the role of a key enzyme in the prefrontal cortex in psychosis.

Dr. Lars Vedel Kessing, University of Copenhagen, will look at genetic differences between bipolar disorder patients to answer the critical question of which patients may respond to lithium treatment. He will study 500 patients who benefited from lithium and 3,500 who have not.

Dr. Barbara O. Rothbaum, School of Medicine, Emory University, is striving to identify the optimal timing for early Intervention aimed at preventing the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Scientific Council Member Kerry J. Ressler, M.D., Ph.D., one of the world's leading experts in the study of PTSD and the biological mechanisms of fear will collaborate.

NEW TECHNOLOGIES —to advance or create new ways of studying and understanding the brain:

Dr. Susan M. Dymecki, Harvard Medical School, is widely recognized for groundbreaking work in developmental neuroscience and brain-mapping technologies, and in her new study, she will add electrophysiology to investigate the behavior of neurons of the serotonin neuroregulatory system, implicated in depression and PTSD.

Dr. Luis de Lecea, Stanford University School of Medicine, will use optogenetics (a revolutionary technology making it possible to control and study behavior with great precision) to investigate the possible role of nerve cells—noradrenergic A2 neurons—in the stress-related norepinephrine systems in anxiety, depression and PTSD.

Dr. Brian Litt, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, will investigate the use of nanodevices for targeting treatments to only reach unhealthy nerve cells and circuits in brain and behavior disorders, thus avoiding potentially harmful impact on uninvolved areas of the brain.

Dr. Rafael Yuste, Columbia University, will use advanced imaging approaches and photon lasers to examine the role of chandelier cells in schizophrenia. It is thought that these neurons could alter the balance between internal brain processes and external sensory stimulation.

NEXT GENERATION THERAPIES —to reduce symptoms of mental illness and retrain the brain:

Dr. Ege T. Kavalali, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, will work to improve the usefulness of the rapid-acting antidepressant ketamine. He will explore ketamine/brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) interactions to find ways to combat the treatment's side effects.

Dr. Barbara Milrod, Weill Cornell Medical College, will conduct a trial to determine the effectiveness of panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy as a treatment for separation anxiety for patients with depression and/or anxiety who have not responded to other treatments. Separation anxiety precedes most cases of adult anxiety disorders and is a risk factor for treatment failure.

Dr. Sohee Park, Vanderbilt University, an earlier NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee, will study tests and treatments for psychosis to specifically target the social brain network through virtual reality and robotics to increase the level of engagement in individualized social training.

Dr. Nenad Sestan, Yale School of Medicine, will study mechanisms underlying development and dysfunction in the cortex, the seat of higher brain function to obtain insights that may yield targets for new treatments for illnesses of cognitive impairment.

Dr. Stephen Traynelis, Emory University, will explore a potential schizophrenia treatment approach based on altering the function of the neuroregulator glutamine in a chain of events that involves glutamine receptor N-Methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA).


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