Free public symposium Nov. 30 to break down schizophrenia’s walls


The Center for Biomedical Neuroscience (CBN) at UT Health San Antonio invites the public to learn about the latest developments in schizophrenia research and treatment at a free daylong symposium Friday, Nov. 30. Seating is limited and advance registration is required. Parking, lunch and the program are all free. Register here.

The San Antonio Brain Health Symposium: Update on Schizophrenia, presented by the CBN, is scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the university’s Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute, located at 8403 Floyd Curl Drive, San Antonio, Texas 78229. This first CBN symposium is organized by a team led by CBN Director David Morilak, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology at UT Health San Antonio.

Speakers will include physicians on the front lines of schizophrenia treatment, basic science researchers studying strategies to stop the disease, and two patient advocates who seek to help individuals and families. During the afternoon session, a UT Health San Antonio clinical psychologist, Dawn Velligan, Ph.D., professor with the Department of Psychiatry in the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine, will interview one of the patient advocates about his experience with the disorder.

This year’s event is designed, in part, to give hope to patients and communities that researchers and clinicians are working to find solutions for schizophrenia, Dr. Morilak said.

UT Health San Antonio research to be presented

“The biggest problem in schizophrenia research is we don’t completely understand the neurobiology of the illness,” said symposium morning speaker Daniel Lodge, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology at UT Health San Antonio. “Until we know what goes wrong, we can’t treat it with precision.”

In animal models, Dr. Lodge and postdoctoral researcher Jennifer Donegan are making headway on this dilemma. They have discovered two novel, potential treatments for schizophrenia. One approach involves stem cells. The other involves gene therapy. Dr. Lodge will discuss these exciting developments at the symposium.

Using stem cells to reverse schizophrenia

During early life development, stem cells develop into multiple cell types as needed by the body. Later in life, they may be used by the injured body to heal itself (this is the idea behind “regenerative medicine”). Could stem cells repair the brains of people with schizophrenia?

“In our lab here at UT Health San Antonio, we’ve converted stem cells into different types of cells and compared their activity in rats that model schizophrenia,” Dr. Lodge said. “When we implant a specific type of cell into the hippocampus—a center of emotions, learning and memory—this particular cell corrects many symptoms associated with schizophrenia. It fixes everything we’ve looked at.”

The lab validated this by performing cognitive tests in rats—tests that parallel human testing. The winning cell type puts a halt to rodent behaviors that equate to those seen in human schizophrenia, which are hallucinations and delusions, lack of enjoyment of things typically enjoyed, shying away from social contact, and deficits in working memory.

Gene therapy to treat schizophrenia

The Lodge laboratory is conducting another exciting line of research to stop schizophrenia. The researchers are putting a gene of interest inside a virus, which is then implanted into the rat brain. The gene in this viral “Trojan horse” changes the programming of brain cells, causing them to express specific molecules on the cell surface.

The change is permanent, the lab has found. The result is that these additional molecules, called receptors, quiet the hippocampus and alleviate the human-like symptoms of schizophrenia.

UT Health San Antonio among nation’s leaders in neuroscience

Dozens of researchers throughout UT Health San Antonio have highly competitive, peer-reviewed National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to study neuroscience topics, Dr. Morilak said. Many of them are members of the Center for Biomedical Neuroscience. Succeeding CBN symposia will address other areas of faculty interest, such as depression, pain management, dementia and traumatic brain injury. Any faculty member who identifies as a neuroscientist is eligible to join the CBN.

The NIH funding to CBN members is substantial. “If we were all in one neuroscience department, we would easily be among the top 10 neuroscience departments in the country in NIH funding,” Dr. Morilak said. “Only a few institutions, such as Harvard, would be ahead of us.”

Besides Dr. Lodge, the symposium will feature morning talks by Carrie Bearden, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles; William T. Carpenter, M.D., of the University of Maryland School of Medicine; and Carol Tamminga, M.D., of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Verna Lister of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) will speak in the afternoon, along with Jennifer Donegan. Dr. Dawn Velligan will conduct a question-and-answer interview of a patient advocate with schizophrenia at 2:15 p.m. Please see the symposium flyer for speaker times and topics.

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