SAN ANTONIO (Sept. 13, 2012) — Chronic social defeat and depression-like behavior … the role of a gene in schizophrenia … an immune protein’s impact on mood disorders … and daily training to change brain circuits in schizophrenia patients — these are the research programs of four NARSAD Young Investigator Grant winners at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.
Awardees in the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center are Jing Liu, Ph.D., instructor in pharmacology; Ruth Madelaine Paredes, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry; Milena Girotti, Ph.D., instructor in pharmacology; and David Roberts, Ph.D., assistant professor in psychiatry. Only 20 percent of scientists who applied for NARSAD Young Investigator Grants received one this year, according to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation of Great Neck, N.Y., which administers the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) grants.
NARSAD grants propel young scientists’ careers by enabling them to show proof of concept of their hypotheses. Grantees go on to receive 11-19 times their original grant amount in subsequent funding on average. “All four are great examples of well-mentored early career scientists,” said Pedro Delgado, M.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine and Dielmann Distinguished Chair in Psychiatry. “NIH study sections recognize NARSAD grant awardees as receiving a ‘stamp of approval’ from a well-regarded foundation, and this is often as helpful to them in their careers as the actual funds that they receive,” said Alan Frazer, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Pharmacology.
Dr. Liu is seeking to validate her hypothesis that adiponectin, a hormone with anti-diabetic properties that is secreted from fat tissue, plays a role in dendritic remodeling in a chronic social defeat mouse model of depression. Dendrites, the “tree branches” of a neuron, constantly expand and contract, remodeling the connections between neurons. Dr. Liu found that social defeat induced dendritic retraction in the brain areas associated with depression and that this was accompanied by reductions in circulating adiponectin levels. This led to increased susceptibility to stress-induced depression-like behavior. Dr. Liu’s faculty mentor is Xin-Yun Lu, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology and psychiatry.
Dr. Paredes is studying the function of neuregulin-1, a strong candidate gene for schizophrenia and psychosis. Her research will provide insight into the gene’s regulation of the immune response and its role in schizophrenia disease formation. Dr. Paredes’ faculty mentor is Consuelo Walss-Bass, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry.
Dr. Girotti is using rat models in an effort to unveil a causal link between interleukin 6 (an immune protein) and symptoms of mood disorders. Interleukin 6 levels are elevated in patients with major depression, but it is not known whether the protein is involved in inducing or aggravating the symptoms. One goal of the research is to suggest more effective interventions. Dr. Girotti’s faculty mentor is David Morilak, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology.
Dr. Roberts developed an easy-to-remember daily strategy that schizophrenia patients can apply in real-world circumstances. He predicts that by practicing this strategy on tablet computers, patients will improve in their speed, accuracy and general ability to interpret others’ thoughts and feelings. He also believes this daily training will lead to patients’ brain circuits becoming more efficient at social cognition, which will be measured with brain imaging. Dr. Roberts’ faculty mentors are Dawn Velligan, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, and Peter Fox, M.D., professor and vice chairman for research and research education in the Department of Radiology, with multiple cross-appointments, and director of the Research Imaging Institute.
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving federal funding. Research and other sponsored program activity totaled $231 million in fiscal year 2011. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced approximately 28,000 graduates. The $736 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit www.uthscsa.edu.