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Seven Yale affiliates awarded NARSAD Young Investigator Grants

December 08, 2017

Seven Yale affiliates, including representatives from the Yale Department of Psychiatry and Connecticut Mental Health Center, have been awarded research grants through the Brain & Behavior Foundation’s NARSAD Young Investigator Grant Program.

The foundation in 2017 has awarded $13.6 million in 196 new two-year grant awards “to support the work of promising young scientists with innovative ideas in mental health research.” The awards are highly competitive; 864 applications were received.

The grants for 2017 address exceptional research questions across diagnostic categories, from schizophrenia and depression to anxiety, PTSD, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, addiction and bipolar disorder, among others.

The foundation has awarded more than $257 million in grants since 1987 resulting in more than $2.5 billion in subsequent research funding.

Receiving grants from Yale in 2017 are:

Autism/Autism Spectrum Disorder

Eunice Y. Yuen, MD, PhD, will study the role of inhibitory GABA neurons in autism spectrum disorder. In patients with ASD, these neurons are highly overproduced, but it is unknown what role they play in the disorder. Yuen will use organoids derived from autistic children and their parents to understand how the development of GABA neurons differs. The results should lay the foundation for future mechanistic studies using human organoids and may identify potential drug targets in autism.

Depression

Florent Barthas, PhD, hopes to illuminate the brain circuitry underlying reward-related symptoms observed in depression. A brain region called the prelimbic cortex is a central node for the brain’s reward circuitry. Barthas will image this region of the brain in mice as they perform a reward-driven task in order to gain a better understanding of how the prelimbic cortex responds to chronic stress.

Multiple Disorders

Emma Eileen Mary Knowles, PhD, will use magnetic resonance spectroscopy to measure levels of compounds related to phospholipids in the brains of healthy people and those with depression and bipolar disorder, as a first step to determining whether phospholipids may be useful biomarkers for diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. Phospholipids can be measured in blood samples, but it is unclear how their blood levels relate to levels in the brain. (biomarkers; depression, bipolar disorder)

Jerome H. Taylor, MD, will explore the use of melatonin to treat people who are at high risk of developing schizophrenia. The work will target adolescents and young adults who exhibit mild symptoms of psychosis, which puts them at risk of developing schizophrenia within six months. Melatonin is low in patients with schizophrenia and it has been suggested that the supplement might protect neurological function. Taylor will determine if melatonin plays a protective role in these high risk adolescents. (melatonin supplements; psychosis, schizophrenia)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Thomas V. Fernandez, MD, strives to achieve a more comprehensive picture of the genetic underpinnings of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Fernandez will search for forms of genetic variation that remain to be explored in connection with OCD, such as the duplication or deletion of sections of the genome, known as copy number variation. The team will then integrate the risk genes they find with data on brain regions, developmental time periods, and biological processes whose functions are disrupted in OCD patients.

Schizophrenia

Katie Ferguson, PhD, aims to determine whether changes in inhibitory interneurons can cause brain changes observed in schizophrenia. Inhibitory interneurons act as a “brake system” in the brain, and schizophrenia symptoms may arise when this function is disrupted. Using a technique called optogenetics, the team will stop the activity of specific groups of inhibitory interneurons in lab animals and measure the effect on other cells. This is one of several approaches that Ferguson will use to determine if changes in inhibitory interneurons can replicate brain changes seen in schizophrenia.

Quentin Perrenoud, PhD, will be studying the development of peri-neuronal nets (PNNs) in the brain, and how their maturation may impact the onset of schizophrenia. Symptoms develop during early adulthood when PNNs appear in the cerebral cortex. PNNs are altered in schizophrenia patients, and genes involved in PNN metabolism have been linked to the disease. The research seeks to determine how PNNs alter the activity of the mouse cortex, to confirm whether a protein called ErbB4 is essential to the maturation of PNNs, and to observe how PNNs and ErbB4 impact a learning task in the mice.

Submitted by Christopher Gardner on December 08, 2017